Feminism, colonisation and migration: a tale of caution

If anyone had suggested that I would be regularly identifying myself as a feminist in political spheres, I would’ve laughed at the improbability of it.  Coming from where I do, feminism was something that liberal, individualistic, upper-middle class, privileged women did to gain greater space and visibility in groups with people with less privilege and power than them.  Like Marxism, which got bantered around predominantly as a power play used to educate the uncouth and falsely conscious working classes, feminism was a means of wielding power over others rather than something to take strength from.

I therefore learned to distance myself from the discourse of feminism and to a lesser extent from those who espoused it.  There was quite a lot in the history and mythology of hindu and secular India that attested to the variety of roles played by women in the struggle and I rarely felt the need to use a largely white, middle-class discourse to contextualise or justify my actions.  Had the discourse of feminism been a part of a power-neutral conversation with those engaged in other struggles, my resistance to it would have been reduced.  It wasn’t.  It was, naturally enough, subject to the inequities rampant in our society and as such something that academically gifted, english-language educated, relatively privileged had access to.  I suspect if the discourse had been less elitist mahila mandals up and down the country would’ve found something to appreciate in it.

And then we immigrated to New Zealand.  Sigh.  Cue to radical re-analysis of context, politics and philosophy.

Over the years that I’ve spent in New Zealand (and now Australia) I have come in contact with young feminists from the Indian community.  It’s been fun getting to know them and I’ve learnt a lot.  One thing I’ve noticed is that (much more so than it is in India) feminism and alt scenes are a key means of rebellion and escape.  At the time that I was in India, I was younger and deeply rebellious myself but I’m sure I would’ve noticed if all of us were being pulled towards feminism as the answer to our problems (or the means by which to understand our problems).  We were definitely pulled towards anger and disillusionment with the state of things,  and we definitely got together to talk and organise, we just didn’t frame our conversations under the banner of feminism that’s all.

Let me be clear here: this is not a post about how feminism is bad.  It’s not a post about how Indian women can’t be feminists.  It’s not a post about how because the practice of feminism has been subject to the same flaws and power-imbalances as the practice of all political organising everywhere –  it needs to be abandoned and/or reviled.  For me, living in Australia, identifying as a feminist is a protective, productive and strategic decision.  What I am highlighting here are the radically different meanings of identifying as a feminist in India and identifying as a feminist in Australia.  What I am further trying to tease out are the consequences and effects of identifying as a feminist in Australia if you happen to be a non-indigenous woman of colour.

One advantage of rebelling against gender norms while in India is that (generally speaking) the radical examples of gender do not come from a white perspective.  When I moved to New Zealand, I had to work hard to find non-white voices in feminist writing and only when I had found them did I begin to feel some resonance.  But finding the words of non-white immigrants and indigenous peoples is hard when reading feminist work.  Oh and this is as good a place as any to clarify that that is what I’m concerned about.  Because to me feminism is primarily about solidarity.  And while I’m talking about books a lot, the discourse of whiteness is enmeshed with that of feminism in many different spheres (most often I’ve seen it expressed as unthinking racism in feminist organising).  The doing of feminism has not been the sole prerogative of the middle classes, but again, the finding of these stories is hard work.  And I always find it interesting to tease out the intersections between stories of working class struggles and stories of migration and colour.

If you are by any chance a feminist of colour living in a colonised white-privileging country and reading this; I have this to say: don’t give up, and don’t stop rebelling.

The white-middle-class-able-bodied-female-identified feminist discourse is a great introduction to rebellion and it is a great place to start.  It is not the sum of experience and most likely, if you don’t fit neatly into the categories outlined above, it will not come close to being the sum of your experience.  So take it as a measure of solidarity and acknowledge its limits.  You don’t have to fight to be heard if you don’t want to.  Often the costs of fighting (loss of friendship, accusations of racism, isolation) are higher than the benefits.  But do remember that the parts of you that don’t fit the box still exist and deserve to be valued.  Oh and it is tempting when faced with one oppression to treat it as fixed – try to avoid this as much as you can!  Privilege and solidarity are both context dependent.  So resist the urge to become complacent in your state in the world.  Chances are things are hard enough on a day-to-day basis to make it difficult to be complacent anyhow.  Believe me, there is a wealth of strength and solidarity to be found in other discourses and feminisms – so find it.