Book Club: Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power By Lola Olufemi
This book club was particularly significant because Lola Olufemi gave the inspiration and the emotional relief that came with it, of setting up Women of Keele Educate.
Margaret who was the BAME Officer at Keele SU had invited Lola to speak. Sophia asked Lola, how did she keep going, how did she do this work without breaking. (Sophia was exhausted!!).
Lola said it was important to find your people, create a core group of like-minded people and allies. This response led to conversations between Sophia, Molly, Ele, Roxy and Kiran, and the rest as they say is history…
Members of Women of Keele Educate read this wonderful book that Lola Olufemi released earlier this year. We concentrated on Chapter 2 – The Sexist State.
We then contributed to a conversation via a google doc to allow for us all to talk to each other around our various commitments during Covid-19 and lock-down.
Anyone is welcome to respond, you don’t have to be at Keele and we hope that on our next book club text we get more voices, follow us on twitter (@KeeleOf) or get in contact to get access to the google doc.
The questions were put together by one of the organizers.
We followed the below guidelines and rules to make the process work:
Work through the questions with some thinking points or answers of your own.
Be respectful to others’ comments.
Do not delete other people’s comments.
Observe the Women of Keele Educate Safe Space rules.
Six people responded and were in conversation with each other and the result is below.
For ease each respondent is referred to with their initials, so we see a conversation developing between Sophia (SHT), Ade (AB), Dan (DN), Zak (ZZ) , Alisha (AM) and Sarah (SEH).
Lola has said, Feminism is sustained by the life blood of collective action, what does this mean to you and what part can you play in collective action?
AM: This quote in particular made me think about exclusive forms of ‘feminism’ (I use inverted commas because I believe that if feminism is not intersectional and accepting that those who identify as women ARE women and inclusive of those who do not identify with the binary, then it is simply not feminism) like white feminism only adds fuel to the misogynist fire.
Olufemi words this perfectly in chapter one: ‘White feminist neo-liberal politics focuses on the self as vehicle for self-improvement and personal gain at the expense of others’ (Olufemi 2020: 4). Personal gain at the expense of others is, of course, not collective action and, therefore, under Olufemi’s understanding of feminism, is not feminism. Olufemi continues with the following: ‘Liberal feminism’s obsession with getting women ‘to the top’ masks a desire to ensure that the current system and its violent consequences remain intact’ (4). In this sense, white ‘feminists’ have hijacked the word feminism and are often (sadly) those who are given a platform to speak on tv shows, radios, podcasts etc on feminism.
As a white woman myself, it is vital that I intervene in such conversations to educate people and tackle these deeply problematic ideas where I see and hear them.
Regarding collective action, I believe that in order to talk about change and make plans for change we must first listen to the voices who are silenced by misogyny, misogynoir, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other forms of oppression.
As stated in the W.O.K.E safe space rules, ‘Each person has different privileges and experiences of oppression’ and therefore listening to others is vital in order to construct models for collective action that tackle these forms of oppression at their very core.
SHT I agree with a lot of what AM has said above, particularly the imperative that we first listen to the voices that are silenced.
Collective action is essential not only to have a group working together for a common goal of change but to ensure that the goals are inclusive for everyone, without the multiple voices that participate in collective action we cannot create meaningful change in the first place.
I find it extremely frustrating when institutions have an idea that they can work towards a meaningful set of ‘inclusive’ change or improvements when they do so with their established hierarchies, we don’t need one senior manager or department head to declare themselves a feminist and to impose changes they think are needed, we need those with power, to move over, share the floor, remove the consequences of speaking truth to their power and allow the collective voice to tell them why there is oppression and wrongdoing.
Collective action works as a check and balance, it ensures that people are called out or called into the conversations.
A good leader creates a space for multiple voices, all action should be collective, and we see how it goes wrong when it isn’t.
When I think of a failure within action groups, I think of things such as the implicit and explicit racism within white driven environmental action groups.
The well-meaning nature of wanting to save the environment is something that seems to override the problematic nature of the actions and structures, the silencing of indigenous voices, the reproduction of white supremacy, the classism that occurs within choices of action or the erasure of BIPOC’s work.
A truly radical changing space would mean that those with power, take a step back from their own egos and understand that their ideas need to be co-created in spaces where people can criticize and educate each other.
I often think the part I play personally is to ‘kick the door down’ and then open up the space for the voices that should be there, I’d like to hope that is what I achieve anyway, it’s a life long and self reflective project, and I work on constantly checking I’m not overreaching, this means that everyday I make sure if someone thanks me I remind them that it’s not my work, I name those that have done the work and remind people to do the same. None of us do anything (good) as an individual.
AM in response to SHT: Love the bit you’ve said about kicking the door down, thank you for educating me.
I think on top of that, the spaces that are created or disrupted I suppose for those who are oppressed to speak should not only be made available but also should be made safe.
For example, I saw a tweet on Twitter (cannot find the source now but will keep looking) where a Black woman tweeted that white people who retweet her statements onto their pages often cause her to be exposed to a lot of white people who see her content and then proceed to respond with racial hate.
A simple often well-intentioned retweet can force Black women into unsafe spaces online as opposed to simply amplifying a Black woman’s voice- in this, kicking the door down is essential, but also making sure it is safe for others to come into that space is a mandatory step in this process.
AB: I definitely agree with the statement. Radical activism is not only labour intensive and emotionally draining, it’s multifaceted and involves all aspects of life.
This cannot be done productively by a single person, collective action allows for all voices to be heard and for more than a single perspective to be considered.
Collective action requires active listening and an understanding that your experiences shape your reality. Therefore without working together someone experiences could be forgotten or neglected.
DN: Collective action and intersectionality were the two main things that jumped out at me from the first 2 chapters. I loved the idea that collective action does not just exist to be an antithesis to neo-liberal model of feminism, but also involves a more complete idea about working towards goals for all.
Intersectionality should and could be practiced by every political science approach, but rarely seems to be. Feminism and the feminists that participate in collective action seem to achieve it far more than other students of political science, and this is one of the main reasons why I’ve found myself so attracted to the approach.
Now that I think about it, the idea of being able to listen and adapt/modernize/progress ways of thinking based on collective input has been so foreign in my prior studies, that it makes feminism and the people at the forefront all the more special to me. I was talking to my dad today about how I had Chemistry lecturers who refused to use the idea of ‘a modern benzene ring’ when showing Organic chemistry reaction mechanisms.
The details are not important in that really, but my point is that a major fault of not just ignorant politicians/ dominant elites/societal leaders/racist sympathizers/imperialists, but also academics is an inability to accept that some of their information might be outdated.
If you’re a stranger to organic chemistry, the old form of a benzene ring is an incredibly pathetic ‘hill to die on’. Anyway, I digress.
In terms of SHT’s final line on individual achievement, it is something that seems more true every day of my life.
This approach works as a living organism that is the sum of its parts. And with this collective action; with its foundation of equal voice and understanding, there is the greatest chance of not just criticizing the gendered social constructs of power, but changing them.
ZZ: AB’s comments really resonate with me here, particularly talking about the labour intensive aspect of activism. I’ve often found myself struggling to place my role in collective action, as a white-passing woman who used to wear hijab but no longer does – I’ve found that the way I’m perceived in activist spaces has changed; despite being white-passing,
I think that my hijab often caused me to be perceived as non-White much more overtly, and now without it, the way that people treat me is markedly different. In that context I find myself having to recognize the importance of knowing my individual role in collective action, and that it’s important to recognize where I possess privilege to take on more of the labour burden where necessary, as well as not allowing my voice to drown out those who need to be heard.
It is so important, as SHT said, to recognize how collective action is carried out institutionally. One thing that really stood out to me in the first few chapters of the text is the recognition of how white-feminist ideology seeks to place (white) women higher on the ladder without recognizing the oppressive systems upheld by that ladder.
Positive change to me needs to be reinforced by complete restructuring of such systems rather than just increasing the diversity within them, and I agree that the only way to achieve that is through collective work from everyone on the ladder, in all positions.
SEH – Everyone has made amazing points here, many of which I would just reiterate. Collective action to me has to involve everyone – AM makes an excellent point about ‘white feminists’ and their ability to be the one mouthpiece that the media and various other sources immediately pick up on, rather than those who are most marginalized in society, and for whom the ‘sexist state,’ as mentioned by Olufemi (Olufemi, 2020: 22) keeps under the ‘most’ oppression.
I love SHT’s point about ‘kicking the door down,’ and using our privilege to open the doors for those who are most oppressed and vulnerable. This is what I believe to be one of the cornerstones for intersectional feminism: those who have privilege allowing those who don’t to have the space they need.
What is the difference between what feminism is and what it should do?
AM: I made spider diagrams to show my thoughts on feminism. My lists are not exhaustive, of course, but I just wanted to blurt out some of my ideas on what I believe feminism is and what main-stream media sources have repeatedly represented it to be (also I use the wrong ‘there’ at the bottom of the page so please forgive me, also realized that I did not mention fatphobia, ableism, neurodiversity and probably lots more that you can all add to it).
I also think that feminism must be anti-capitalist although I’m not sure I made that clear enough on my diagram:
Here is an article that lists more black, Muslim and indigenous climate activists that do not get celebrated in mainstream media: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/8xwvq3/11-young-climate-justice-activists-you-need-to-pay-attention-to-beyond-greta-thunberg.
DN: This is a really interesting question, particularly because it has routes in attempting to find absolutes in the approach, which is probably something that I am still learning about. Without going into that too much, it seems to me that feminism or at least intersectional feminism is both its entire makeup (historically, culturally, philosophically, etc.) AND its most updated version of itself, with everyone’s voice included.
This also seems very hard to imagine, let alone picture, and therefore even more difficult to imagine what something so encompassing and fluid is doing definitively, and I think that is where ‘sects’ develop in order to be able to specify action. Division of something so complex for output’s sake!
What feminists that are against ‘a complete division’ in so much as they are for collective action try to do is attempt to avoid this division, or better yet use intersectionality as an almost ‘tether’ to hold the movement in an area of equality; to acknowledge new methods whilst not forgetting routes; to allow all voices to be heard whilst also encouraging healthy debate, and to above all it seems maintain this fluidity that finds a balance between output and assessment of that output.
Olufemi uses the examples of BBWG and OWAAD to show living intersectionality, and historic proof that groups coming from different backgrounds find common ground, and actually help each other evolve and find strength collectively.
She uses these two groups to show how this relationship encouraged the Marxist left to recognize race and gender exploitation. In this, you can see philosophical foundations that are perhaps more definable, such as striving for equality, encouraging opportunities for healthy criticism and debate, a search for equal truth throughout history that has not shared voices equally, and to provide action and support in areas to allow future generations a fairer future, which often involves attacking and criticizing the social constructs in place that have been created specifically in order to maintain these inequalities.
SHT – so I love AM’s spider diagram and I’m going to take a page from her book (sorry couldn’t help the pun!) and do the same. (Update – I never got round to this! Sorry!)
SEH: Very briefly – feminism should be the collective belief of a group of like-minded peoples – however Olufemi does state in Chapter 2 the differences between ‘radical feminists,’ ‘critical feminists’ and ‘liberal feminists’ (Olufemi, 2020: 22, 23), and whilst I do agree that all of those branches are completely valid, surely feminism, deep down, is about fighting for equality?
Feminism should fight tooth and nail for equality for everyone, particularly those who are marginalised.
I’m sure I have some more thoughts on this, so watch this space for some beautiful spider diagrams, a la AM and SHT!
“The state organises our lives. It defines the parameters of the way we live, from what is legal and illegal, to the medical, social and political services we can access” How do we imagine a different type of state using intersectional feminism?
SHT – the state is a really hard thing to imagine changing at times, someone said in the Read and Resist law reading group I attend when I can (Thank you Flic for running this!) that the state is a bit like the spaceship that covers the whole sky in alien movies.
It can feel like it is impossible to see what is happening above it or how you can defeat something so giant. Olufemi says this herself, “Because we imagine state power as inevitable, it seems ludicrous to think about another way we might organise …” (p23) but she then asks questions about specific parts of the state, for example, what would a world without a police force look like or how would housing be organised without a centralized body?
I think these questions are important because they help us deconstruct what feels like a giant inevitable and overarching monster into smaller manageable chunks, Olufemi and others have shown us the many ways in which the racist capitalist state make us sick ( us the collective) and so this, breaking into manageable chunks approach and the similar technique I personally learned from the use of Cognitive Behavioral techniques – taken from mental health resources is quite poignant.
What is important though is to go back and reflect on breaking down into winnable sections and make sure that we realize that some of it is just reformist smoke screens, for example Olufemi argues that there is an equality illusion, that the state sexism has not gone it has merely shifted in shape and its methods, yes women can vote now, but the state harms them with underfunded services, a gender pay gap, prison systems, awful legislation that is presented as a solution to things like domestic abuse but in fact worsens outcomes for survivors and society. State negligence and under-funding harm women.
A different type of state would then be something much more radical, with changes to the economy, the legal structures, the social structures. A start would be transparency, so that accountability can then happen.
AM in response to SHT: Following on from your fantastic points Sophia, I think that a big part of imagining a different type of state (and the primary step) is to educate ourselves and others about how the state governs and organises our lives.
As you highlighted about Olufemi’s discussion on the topic, we often–without realising–normalise the state rule and take its powers as a fact of life that we must simply deal with.
However, while we may be growing more and more aware of and educated about systems that the state hides away from view (i.e. detention centres), we must also acknowledge that many of the public have no idea about (for example) prison conditions, detention centres, police power, or custodial death rates. In this sense, while we must move our own knowledge forward by reading more, talking more with one another, we must realise and remind ourselves that we were not born with this knowledge.
Therefore, we must spread our awareness and ideas for a better future in order to promote wider discussion to those who (unintentionally) are not in these conversations. Of course, some have the privilege of being ignorant to state violence so I see this as one of my roles in feminism to talk about it with people who are ignorant of state power and its issues.
AB: The idea of a state is often too abstract to simplify but from the perspective of an IR student it’s easy to see that it is a complex network of policing and security institutions/practices.
And we are taught that such institutions/practices are necessary for the stability of the state and without it chaos is certain.
This traps us in a neoliberal capitalist framework that does not take into consideration the impact it has on people (even the idea of people to consider or who is a citizen is defined by this framework).
Intersectional feminism first forces us to see the many flaws of the current system, who the system was made for and who it has neglected. It then allows us to imagine something other than the status quo.
DN: All points stated above are things that I agree with. From SHT’s spaceship state analogy and reformist smokescreens; to AM and AB describing how communication and awareness of all ideas allows for the deconstruction of methods of control of status quo that were fed in from a young age.
Something that has occasionally (and temporarily, unfortunately) helped me overcome the idea of the state being this idea of an insurmountable mountain top where the gods live is to see the actions of people on the ground.
To see how there are many people who have forced the hand of the seemingly immovable. And I think this is part of the illusion.
If we believe that it is truly insurmountable, then we move away from the idea of constructs, that it simply is, then nothing can or will change it. Seeing the state as something that can be changed through the evidence that exists, then the mountain, or spaceship isn’t unreachable. Change of the constructs is then possible.
What I think I am trying to say, is this communication; this acknowledgement of actions of groups that have forced the hand of the state is exactly what will ‘lower’ the spaceship, or indeed the summit of mount Olympus.
Olufemi writing of the actions of Sister’s uncut in Trafalgar square, and the work of Dawn Foster in her book ‘Lean out’, and her own work revealing the atrocities committed at Yarl’s wood IRC are all part of the process that is attempting to land the spaceship.
SEH: I admit here to having no background in politics or IR, and so my views on this matter are not researched. It is difficult to imagine a state that is intersectionally feminist, because it seems so far away from what the state currently is. Olufemi mentions how ‘the state organises our lives’ (Olufemi, 2020: 22) and there are so many tangents that tie us down to performing specific acts under that organisation.
I almost see it as a uniquely utopian space, as it seems currently like a wonderful ideal that will not be realised until people are given voices and views , particularly those who are the most marginalised, and there is a collective ‘rise up.’
ZZ: A lot of this has been covered already in some really great points. I very much approach it in the same way as described by SHT and agree with the necessity to break the concept of state into manageable pieces that can be addressed.
The health perspective is something that I want to consider, as a medical student and future healthcare provider. Health provision is inextricably tied to the state, making marginalised groups much less able to access healthcare. Structural inequalities to access are well documented and are known to be driven largely by the lack of intersectionality in the way the state operates.
This is multifaceted – for example, people living in poverty are much less able to access adequate healthcare and suffer from regional lack of resources in poorer areas, women’s health is held back hugely by sexist notions that are taught into the medical system, and many racial biases and inaccuracies are taught as fact in medical curriculum.
For me I imagine that a state that utilises intersectional feminism would break down a lot of these barriers, starting from the education of healthcare professionals and persisting throughout the system into redistribution of resources.
“When feminism is hijacked by the elites and feminist discourse seeps into the upper echelons of society, it is those with power that set the feminist agenda.”
When key figures state their feminist credentials, how does it make you feel? Feel free to use an example politician/ famous person etc.
AM: [CW: TRANSPHOBIA, RACISM, GENDER QUEER ERASURE] Here I want to talk about J.K. Rowling and how she has recently used her platform to talk about misogyny and delivered trans-exclusionary ideas on ‘feminism’.
Rowling’s rant started with a tweet about her frustrations with an article that said ‘people who menstruate’ as she believed that the article was erasing women as – in her opinion – it should have said ‘women’ as opposed to ‘people who menstruate’. After obvious hurt and backlash from Twitter, Rowling then followed up her tweet with a very long-winded discussion to attempt to validate her ideas on what it means to be a woman.
Although many people on Twitter and beyond voiced their disappointment with the author (although she has made her trans-exclusionary ideas pretty clear multiple times in the past), she did also receive a lot of support from many (predominantly) white cis women. It is crucial to note that Rowling not only decided to tweet this tweet in general which is problematic enough, but also that she decided to tweet her tweet during the Black Lives Matter movement; adding to the transmisogynoir oppression that endangers the lives of Black trans women everywhere everyday.
Whether we like it or not, celebrity culture is real and J.K. Rowling’s thoughts on feminism and misogyny reach many people: not only those on Twitter, but also other generations like for example older people who perhaps learnt about her ideas from shows like Good Morning Britain or Loose Women.
In light of this, Rowling has a lot of power over the word feminism. Not everyone knows about or is tuned into feminist dialogues today, so when Rowling’s statements are watered down or presented in such a way as for example ‘ROWLING ARGUES AGAINST THE ERASURE OF WOMEN’ some may think ‘well what’s wrong with that?’.
However, although Rowling believes that she is against the erasure of women her arguments actually actively erase the experiences of a lot of women and reinforce a deeply dangerous dialogue about trans men and those who do not identify with the binary. Rowling’s statements reject that trans women are women, erase the experiences of cis women who don’t menstruate for a multitude of reasons and trans men, non-binary, and gender queer people who have or continue to menstruate to name a few examples.
Like Olufemi’s observations on white ‘feminism’ that I discuss in my response to question 1 (see above), Rowling is guilty of hiding behind a mask of progressiveness. Rowling said that she cannot possibly be transphobic as she ‘knows and loves’ trans people; of course, a performative ‘feminist’ equivalent to the performative anti-racist phrase ‘I am friends with Black people, how can I be racist?!’.
Sadly, white feminists are always ready with their get-out-of-Twitter-jail-free cards that they know work on a lot of the public. In light of this, we must talk about tabloid stories like this one with our families if we are safe to do so, we must educate, we must use our voices to show trans people that they are, always have been, and always will be included in feminist ideas and feminism as a whole.
However, Rowling’s influence is only the tip of the iceberg, and because of this, problematising celebrity culture is something which must be done in order to create feminist goals for the future.
SHT – AM’s example above nails it! Really good contemporary example of feminism being hijacked for a transphobic agenda. When I explain I am a feminist, I (and others in W.O.K.E) use the term ‘intersectional feminist’ and this is to indicate, as well as, separate away from other ‘types’ of feminism.
It is a broader problem that feminism is homogenised into a white cis middleclass feminist approach far too often, and then it is a further problem when this is given a spotlight and validation as the ‘one true feminism’.
I oscillate between dismissing feminism that isn’t intersectional as not real feminism and being more reflective and saying that feminism, like terms ‘politically left’ or ‘politically right’ or ‘central’ are all spectrum terms.
When I think about a spectrum of feminism, it gives me more hope that people will continue on a self education journey and remove their bigotry and join us in the much kinder space of intersectional feminism, where to be an intersectional feminist you are sex work positive, you are anti-racist, you fight against ableism, you prioritize and celebrate your queer family, you unpack your own biases, demand better economic systems, fight against classism, demand natural resources aren’t exploited.
To get to that space, a lot of people will come through the first door of general feminism, I’m happy to wait for people to catch up, and lend support.
What I think is important though is to fight against this idea that by stating you are a feminist, you are absolved of any further work and that your problematic behaviors are either acceptable or part justified because you have declared yourself a feminist.
What is worse, is using the idea of feminism to celebrate some truly horrendous women because they are women. We see it in the idea that people like Margret Thatcher and Theresa May are feminists, they are not, they have done more to damage and harm women’s rights than a lot of men.
When you have power, and you use it to oppress, you are not a feminist regardless of your gender.
A feminist deconstructs structures of violence and harm, and replaces and rebuilds spaces so that multiple voices are heard, they are not a feminist just by existing and identifying as a woman.
When a key figure states their feminist credentials, my first feeling is apprehension, followed by some good digging to check what sort of feminism they declare themselves part of.
DN: Before I contribute anything to this chapter, if I indeed can come up with an example, is to first of all express my disappointment in the learning of the first example of J.K. Rowling (I am not super active on twitter). It is incredible to me that someone can fall at the hurdle of menstruation as the limit to their idea and indeed internal manifestation of ‘true woman’, something that seems to me now absurd, but also just hurtful.
If I try my best to understand where J.K Rowling is coming from, I fail when I see that she cannot understand how she hurts so many people by discounting them in such a way.
As I write this, I am trying to see this as my lack of understanding, and therefore in this situation I may be part of the problem. AM describes very well the misuse of Rowling’s responsibility and her ‘hiding behind a mask of progressiveness’.
I am sure that through reading both AM and SHT’s answers to this question I have gained a great deal about ideas that I have felt, perhaps to a less developed degree. I feel I must also say, perhaps mostly to myself when faced with Rowling’s example, that practicing collective action and intersectional feminism involves having Rowling’s opinion being involved and listened to, even if it is to criticize the base ignorance of it. If it is truly how she feels, and she has expressed it, then it is still part of a feminist conversation.
If I look further into what I have just said there, it leads me to a path that suggests even the most hateful, out-of-touch, and base xenophobia is also a part of it, or at least A feminist conversation.
Is true collective listening and intersectionality at its purest supposed to hurt this much? Maybe I am way off.
SEH: I think, for me, this deserves a bit more of my time and attention (and indeed research), but what I will say is that rarely does a ‘mainstream’ feminist represent my views, particularly in the media, and therefore there are groups who see ‘feminism’ as a particular ‘thing,’ still harking back to the days of ‘bra-burning’ (which didn’t happen.)
ZZ: I think the use of the word “hijack” is very powerful here, and expresses the issue really well.
The concept of power is one that I find myself constantly needing to understand better, as its very easy to look at powerful figures such as celebrities and politicians, and idolize them for their feminist statements, without recognizing that their place in their social hierarchy is also problematic and can be harmful.
JK Rowling is an excellent example, and AM has described the issue that such narratives present very eloquently. I think that in more recent times the idea of calling yourself a feminist has changed; I can remember when it was perceived as a radical self-identifier that many people would shy away from, whereas now the narrative has changed to more of a “everyone should consider themselves a feminist” attitude.
And the celebrity industry has played a large part in this – its much more normalized for celebrities to be performatively outspoken on being feminists and showing support for feminist movements.
Things like social media posts and solidarity statements make it a lot easier for everyone to declare themselves feminists, whether they put in meaningful work or not.
In some ways this can be perceived as beneficial since it works to normalize feminist notions, however I personally find it difficult to align myself with people who refer to themselves as feminists on their public platform but do little to address the privilege they possess as some of the world’s richest.
The chapter discusses the ‘equality illusion’ . What are some illusions of equality that particularly stand out for you?
SHT – a simple equality illusion is the idea that if something is made illegal, the problem is then solved. For example, in the U.K. it is illegal to pay women less than men for the same job.
This is used when people want to derail any discussion about the gender pay gap. If it is illegal it must not exist.
The reality, as we know, is that the gender pay gap exists and is there in a multifaceted complex and ‘wicked’ way. (referring to the idea of wicked problems, problems that are harder to solve).
What the law in this case does is provide a baseline, a bar of the bare minimum, a really low bar safety net.
The way to look at the gender pay gap is to realize that first of all, without transparent and published wages in an institution there is no accountability, without good support for people with caring responsibilities there can be no support towards lessening the gap.
Without transparent, plain language wording for career progression goals, women and Black women and women of colour even more so are kept from progressing as quickly as men.
A further part of this equality illusion is that, if people are paid less it is because they are less skilled or took more career breaks, but there is still a gender pay gap in medical professions in the U.K. where people are at the same level of expertise, and this is heightened as a gap with Black and POC doctors. (link to BMJ research: https://www.bmj.com/content/365/bmj.l2089.full)
AM: I have made a spider diagram on the ways in which I believe universities use Equality Illusions to perform ‘progressiveness’.
Although these things that I list are not legally binding policies in universities, they present as though they are evidence that the university is doing something about oppression, violence, and inequality- when in fact, that is often not the case.
My list is, of course, not exhaustive, also I meant to write ‘typical university prospectus’ as opposed to atypical sorry.
DN: The one that I am reminded of right now after reading AM’s spider diagram is that of the welfare and opportunities of International students during and post-Covid-19, especially when considering extending postgraduate studies.
For students who have to pay as much as three times what a UK citizen pays, and have to jump through countless hoops, all for the chance to receive so-called top-level education, only then to be the first to be thrown overboard is nothing short of criminal.
It is justified by the powers that be through an idea that ‘it’s not their fault that the home office hasn’t provided a solution’ and that ‘the argument is with them, not us’ is so hopeless that I would understand if these students wanted to never come back to this place for the rest of their days.
They are clearly not valued as highly as UK citizens, and that seems to me to be the only part of all this that is absolutely certain.
SEH: Illusions of equality: I don’t even know where to start, my list would probably span over several pages. I will use examples from my working life though: I was a teacher, and I was paid the same as the men on the same pay scale as me, but it was always the men who were promoted first into more senior positions, so whilst paying men and women unequally is illegal, there are always loopholes that can be exploited.
As SHT, this is particularly apparently when we look at examples of Black women and women of colour, who are even less likely to be promoted in this way. As much as I don’t agree with some of her educational policies, and I am aware of her privilege, the headteacher of the Michaela Community School in Wembley is Katharine Birbalsingh, a woman of colour who has changed the shape of education.
But she had to do this by creating a free school rather than going through the state system.
ZZ: I’m going back to something I mentioned in a previous question, but the immediate examples I think of are in medicine. I only very recently learnt about several racial biases that persist in the healthcare system that I had accepted without question.
A core example is blood pressure medication – it is known and normal practice to prescribe blood pressure medication differently depending on race – specifically, Black people are given a different treatment regimen to non-Black people of the same age.
This is something I’d always accepted without asking any real questions – I even at some points appreciated it, as I made the naive assumption that this was to the benefit of Black patients and appreciated that the system had “taken the time to accommodate”.
It is only very recently that I read into the issue further and found that the differences may be due to inequality during clinical trials, such as testing drugs on small groups of Black patients with severe high blood pressure, without using a matched group of white patients.
The results of these experiments are what led to our current system of administering treatment depending on race, but current healthcare providers who are not taught that, are allowed to believe that the differences are due to a system of equality.
There are countless other examples in healthcare – women’s pain is less likely to be taken seriously, non-white women are much more likely to die in labour, as I mentioned previously the classist distribution of healthcare is a huge problem.
However in the UK we have this mentality of “free healthcare for all” and the perception of equality in the NHS, when the truth is that this equality does not exist.
AB: I definitely agree with everything that has been said above. The illusion of equality is often found in top down approaches or when the focus is only on law and policy.
It allows for surface/performative actions that absolve institutions and political actors from responsibility.
It’s often narrow and neglects the most vulnerable identities in an attempt to make it palatable. But there’s a lack of understanding that the work is continuous and always evolving.
“We might argue that this is an example of the state failing; breaking its promise to protect women. But what if this was always how it was supposed to operate?”
How does this statement make you feel, and what do you think about it?
AM: States were made by predominantly white cis men so it is no surprise that most spaces are not safe or inclusive for women because the model of society was made without them in mind, or at least, the model conceptualized women in a certain way, making it hard and sometimes impossible for women to break out of certain systems of oppression.
To me, this statement shows that exclusive forms of ‘feminism’ cannot and will not challenge the state and will not ever result in the protection of women.
For example, white ‘feminism’ (as Olufemi states above, see my point in Q1) exists to exclude and silence other voices and as a result will only ever silence more women (including white women themselves as spaces will still be unsafe for all women to be in) and will deepen the roots of internalized misogyny.
Here is an example of white ‘feminism’ that I find sums up how awful it is (that’s Theresa May by the way just in case any of you managed to erase her from your memory)
To think how much pain her party has caused so many women, especially considering her hostile environment policies!
Here is a clip of black Labour MP Dawn Butler talking in 2018 about why Theresa is not a feminist if anyone is interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uq1w_fgg_5U see 5m 30s onwards for her reflections on May.
SHT – The state in the U.K. is a colonial- racist and capitalist-misogynist one, it is built to oppress. I use the phrase colonial-racist – because the state is *still* an imperialistic / colonizing state to this day and in order to colonize, systems of hierarchy were used that racialized people as being lesser than anyone who was deemed to be white and therefore deserving of power.
I use capitalist-misogynist because the way capitalism thrives is by being powered by free labour, we call it unseen labour but really it is just unpaid, undervalued and ‘kept in place’ through systems of oppression.
Caring work, is work, it is work that women still do most of, it is work that when, middle class women ‘emancipate’ themselves and go to ‘other work’ they pay predominantly migrant women to do that work, and they underpay, undervalue and society diminishes the value of that work.
The state in the U.K. is deliberately built to oppress, and that is why it is so hard to change it. The structure is there to oppress, it is not an accident, once I acknowledged that I felt better.
By acknowledging the deliberateness of the oppression you stop wasting your energy on trying to reform ‘accidental’ failings, instead you demand change, you demand new structures. For me, realizing the state was deliberately oppressive was liberating.
DN: The statement in question is the start. Feminist studies have shown historically that the masculinisicized imperialist control and oppression is fueled by base masculine ideas of domination over others, over nature.
Colonialism holds its power in the simple idea of DIVIDE and CONQUER. It separates people, creates divisions and illusions to fear or despise other sides of the fences they constructed carefully.
From Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, to making working class British people believe Polish people are stealing their jobs, to creating offensive stereotypes about South-central Asians sent from East Africa to the UK in the 70s, even though they were treated worse than dogs in a shelter upon arrival.
Recognizing these incidents as intentional is important mainly because it is true. Excusing it is damaging to the cause of correcting these white-washed constructs of the histories as we are taught by the media, and indeed allows the state to continue to cover up its actions, as well continuing this behavior.
“If black women die disproportionately at the hands of the police, historically and in the present moment, we must ask, what is the purpose of the police and detention system?”
AM: [CW: SEXUAL VIOLENCE] Both the police and detention centres, as Olufemi points out, are power structures that allow state violence to occur under a veil of performative ‘we are here to protect you’ slogans and promises.
Olufemi gives the example of Yarl’s Wood detention centre who make that exact promise:
(Taken from the from page of http://www.yarlswood.co.uk/)
Olufemi draws our attention to the fact that: ‘A dossier published in 2015 by Women Against Rape and Black Women’s Rape Action Project found gross sexual abuse and misconduct in Yarl’s Wood is commonplace’.
Although I am very much not a fan of Giorgio Agamben’s politics or recent statements about COVID, his work on ‘bare life’ and state of exception could be really relevant here as those forced to reside in Yarl’s Wood are simultaneously excluded from the state as they are detained yet are also included in the state on the basis of their exclusion.
The state rejects to protect them and acknowledge their status but is happy to recognize them in order to enforce restrictions on them and even acts of violence as proved by the data quoted by Olufemi.
Those forced to live in detention centres like Yarl’s Wood are governed by the law but not protected which is just one horrifying example of state violence against women that – as Olufemi points out – feminism MUST address.
We have a duty to use our agency to give voice to and fight for those who have been stripped of their agency by the state.
SHT – I’m going to keep this short, the purpose is to oppress, to police and control and to cause violence.
The police and detention systems have never been about safety.
AM in response to SHT: [CW: SEXUAL VIOLENCE] Yet in regards to Yarl’s Wood, the CEO states this: ‘“Our role is to provide a caring, yet safe and secure environment for all our residents at Yarl’s Wood IRC, We do this by promoting Trust, Care, Innovation and Pride within the centre, and this is at the forefront of all our policies and procedures” Steve Hewer, Centre Manager, Yarl’s Wood’ (From front page of website).
I think their proclaimed code of conduct is important to unpack in many ways, not only do we know that their priority is not the care or safety of those forced to reside at the centre (see my answer above on the sexual violence data), but also their use of the word ‘pride’ is really telling.
In order for its CEO and company to be ‘proud’ of Yarl’s Wood, I think that the word alone shows how detention centres frame themselves as doing something that the British public should be thankful for.
In this sense, their code of conduct words are ambiguous and easily challenged by the sexual violence data highlighted by Olufemi in her book:
Trust: is this trust from the public or those forced to live there? We already know from the data on sexual violence that this cannot mean that either the public or its residents can trust the centre or the company who owns it. Performative word with no evidence.
Care: is this care for the public or those forced to live there? We already know from the data that this cannot mean care for its residents. Performative word with no evidence.
Innovation: this is very ironic considering how these centres refuse to address their issues or change in any way. Again, demonstrative of their performance as a place of protection.
Pride: who is meant to be proud and why? Is this an attempt to be removed from criticism?
SEH: I’m going to be short here, like SHT. The police and detention systems have always been about control, never about safety.
If we as a people are controlled, then it makes it ‘easier’ for the state and the state systems. It’s about silencing.
ZZ: Fully agree with SHT and SEH here – the police system benefits the state and does not benefit citizens, especially those in marginalised groups.
AB: Agree with everything above. The origins of policing can be found in imperialism
“There are no easy answers. When we first become aware of state violence, it can be overwhelming, disheartening and impossible to think of alternatives.” What gives you hope?
SHT – I gain hope by seeing small scale alternatives, I gain hope by enjoying the shared spaces within collective action and I gain hope by being reminded by fellow intersectional feminists that change has happened and will continue to happen. In a strange way as well, which my younger self would find really odd, I have hope by knowing that I cannot change everything, just some things.
Which sounds odd to frame that as hope, but by that I mean, I have hope in the ripple effect, that the changes I make will cause other changes, until eventually a wave of change occurs.
Justice work has peaks and troughs, it is a lifetime of work, without the hope I have attached to the ripple effect I think it would be overwhelming.
AM in response to SHT: I have hope because conversations are being had about the world’s neo-colonial order; people want to ‘forget’ but others are not letting them.
While, of course, there is backlash and colonial nostalgic responses to these conversations, I believe that dialogues are the starting point of positive change.
Although some people may not listen or change, some will, and the number of those who acknowledge and are made aware of the world’s issues will increase with the more conversations we have.
DN: I gain hope through this exercise, and through reading books such as this one (Thanks Lola Olufemi!). I gain hope through the meeting and sharing of ideas with people so enlightened as SHT, AM and AB.
I feel encouraged when someone recognizes a construct that exists solely to oppress, and that someone recognizes that the said construct has been a part of their lives throughout.
I also feel encouraged to pursue this study of hope, because it is encouraged by those that study this themselves, and always with an effort to show respect and humility.
SEH: Groups like this one, and many others give me hope. Grassroots collectives and other spaces that exist to give voices give me hope.
Social media, as much as I think it can be a virus to humanity, gives me hope when I see the voices rise up to defend and protect those who are the most vulnerable, or, as SHT said, people ‘kick the door down’ to allow access.
ZZ: As already stated, I gain hope from spaces like this one, and from the people around me who work every day to do what we can to initiate change. I also find hope in my own journey – I was raised in an echo chamber of racism, sexism, homophobia, and normalization of so many harmful rhetorics.
Reflectively I can remember a time when I stood for these notions, and was what I would now consider to be extremely anti-feminist.
It gives me hope to think of my own development and growth, and to see myself changing and growing constantly to become more conscious and more active within myself, because it helps me to feel that such changes are possible for anyone, and by extension are possible for humanity as a whole.
Without the hope that change is possible I know I would find it a lot harder to partake in activism work so I find this incredibly important.
Join us for our next book club, It’s a slow going process we have so far taken about a month per text to allow for many people’s busy lives. We’re going to announce the next read on our twitter and Faceboook pages, we’re just having a quick debate about what to read next!
Anyone is welcome to respond, you don’t have to be at Keele, and you don’t have to be an academic. We hope that on our next book club text get more voices, follow us on twitter (@KeeleOf) or get in contact to get access to the google doc.
If you would like some inspiration on what to read next head over to our resources page, the Keele Law departments Summer reading and watching list, or our anti-racism resources page.