Friday, January 05, 2007

On feminist dialogue.

OK, the blogsplosion I mentioned in my last post has got me thinking.

What kind of feminist am I? I don't generally consider myself to be a radical feminist. While I agree that we live in a patriarchy, I don't see gender as the primary contradiction from which all others (race, class, etc.) follow, which is the basis of radical feminism. I see gender as one contradiction that is interconnected to these others.

And while I used to be vehemently anti-pornography, and then was later vehemently pro-women's-sexual-expression-via-the-medium-of-porn-if-that-is-what-a-woman-chooses (I'm carefully not using the terms "pro-sex" and "anti-sex" because they are about as useful as "pro-life" and "pro-abortion" in defining political beliefs), I think at this point I'd have to call myself a sex radical with a healthy concern about the damaging nature of pornography and the sex industry (not so much for individual women who may choose to do it or even enjoy it, but for women as a class and for men as a class, as well).

My bookshelves are home to thinkers who might not otherwise survive in a room together: Dorothy Allison and Catherine MacKinnon; Wendy Chapkis and Andrea Dworkin; I think I may even have a Sheila Jeffreys book or two in there to match up with Susie Bright. There's Mary Daly and Audre Lorde and Hester Eisenstein. Combahee River Collective and radical lesbian separatists. I love the contradictions of feminist thought and the way that these contradictions force us to think carefully and create alliances and coalitions. (Often, the contradictions prompt schisms, but for the majority of us who are not involved directly in the conflict, they are moments when we regroup and consider what we have in common.)

What I don't love, however, is public trashing. I also don't love "feminists" who use their feminism as a shield and a sword to attack other women. As a bisexual feminist, I've had the opportunity to observe both of these many times. Sometimes the sword has been stuck in my back by virtue simply of my sexual identity. (I think I've written before of the lesbian feminist who was ready to (rather self-righteously) lecture me about my heterosexual privilege but had no clue about her own offensive, racist comments. I appreciated the irony, at any rate.)

I've also experienced the sword and the trashing whenever I've spoken up for taking an anti-racist approach to a feminist analysis of things like burquas and FGM. The response from certain academics has been that I am a horrible person who thinks FGM is just fine. (I hope it's obvious that this is not the case.) In fact, the word "nuance" on this list - as in, "can we talk about this in context, please" or "can we avoid saying huge generalizations like 'Islam is an oppressive religion,'" or "can we have a critique of the sex industry without implying that all women who work in it have a false consciousness" - seems to prompt responses about how horrible we are because we don't care about women's oppression under fundamentalist Islam, the sex industry, etc.

The danger here is that when we focus only on what another culture is doing that is anti-woman or anti-humanitarian and we don't look at the broader context, we are being ethnocentric and the other culture in question surely sees that. No, of course I'm not saying that we shouldn't be working to end FGM. I'm saying we should 1) do this by following the lead of women organizing within their own cultures against FGM, so that our response is sensitive to cultural practice. FGM is perceived as a mark of cultural preservation. (Wouldn't it make sense to prevent efforts to end it from looking Western?) and 2) also look within Western cultures to see what we've screwed up. I think, for instance, it's beneficial to wonder why we are all, across cultures, so insistent about cutting genitals. What does that say about us as a civilization? (and notice, would you, how I can ask this question without suggesting anything at all about the relative brutality of these practices? Which is something I've also been erroneously accused of.) And we must on all fronts avoid seeing or presenting ourselves as the Great White Hope, which I think we do all too often.

The insistence on placing others' feminisms into a box and dismissing them is not helping the movement. We can't really afford to take an all or nothing approach. I'm not talking about selling out. I'm talking about what we are really doing with our time when we aren't arguing with each other. We have been fighting the sex wars since 1982 (in the U.S.). We have been fighting white-centric tendencies since white women imagined (we didn't invent) feminism. Isn't it time to move on? Can't we get over drawing these lines in the sand?

I'm sure there will be more to follow - perhaps something that deals more with the dialogue part of my title and that isn't written in a sleepy fog at 2 in the morning...

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