Gendered Discourse and Disagreements
07 Saturday Sep 2013
An article I read recently, on a blog I usually find to be too aggressive, prompted this post. This ‘tone-policing’ attitude of mine might be taken to delegitimise the justified rage expressed but personally, there is too much aggression in my world. I think there are ways of sharing the anger you feel by exposing oppression, revealing or explaining its dynamics. It is possible to convey emotion in more ways than just using the word “fuck” a lot or with vague threats of violence, both of which I am weary of reading. I resent that people are applauded for simply proving how angry they are when others make every effort, despite the odds, to present their arguments in an eloquent way and avoid assuming oppressive language. That’s why it is so refreshing to see someone candidly describe their experiences, and make a brave effort to clarify to others how their experience has shaped their engagement and their personal life.
In the same spirit of honestly, and potentially, reconciliation, I would like to tackle some of the problems that I have been having around feminism and activism, in relation to my own experience of the Scottish left.
Recently, a friend told me they found it personally insulting that I should identify as a queer woman. To identify with either gender while claiming to reject the gender binary, was delegitimising their ‘trans’ identity. If the very fact of my identifying as a queer woman is a comment on trans discourse, I am automatically guilty of commenting on trans experience, of which I have none. ‘Queer’ is taken to be on the fence ideology, a halfway point between the age of feminism and the (current) age of enlightenment, in which it has been supplanted by ‘trans’, an overarching term with an increasingly vague definition. but queer is not an ideology. It is a methodology for understanding the world. Queer theory took the critiques provided by feminism and applied them to every social relationship. Until recently, I took ‘trans’ to mean somebody who felt compelled to transition from one gender to another, but I now realise it encompasses anyone who rejects gender entirely. I am yet to see an explanation of the difference between queer and trans which has clarified this distinction for me. Asking for one is perceived as an attack.
It seems to come down to a question of whether you identify personally or publicly as ‘trans’. In order to have your views as a trans person accepted as such, you need to publicly identify as trans; if for whatever reason, you do not do so, you’re views will be interpreted as those of a cis individual. I guess I can live with being labeled ‘cis’ by people with whom I have never discussed gender, as long as still allowed to talk about my experiences a woman. I struggle to do this without referring in any way to the gender binary. Most of all, I don’t understand how a movement that exists for the sole reason that people should be able to identify however the fuck they want, could have such a problem with the labels that I apply to myself.
I feel that I may be clinging to erroneous definitions, that academia has rendered all the methods and labels I had to describe my experiences, obsolete. If language moves this fast, I think we need to slow it down so people can catch up. Everything worth saying can be said in a way that is easily understood, especially if its a question of respect. I have been accused of having too low an opinion of peoples intelligence because I’ve said that some of the discourse around gender is too academic and exclusive to appeal to the majority of people. but I have myself been excluded from discussions for this reason. If I add to all this that I am also a radical feminist, you might decide I’m truly ignorant and just stop reading, but I am a person with their own experiences, some of which might be very similar to your own. I think it is important to speak to what is relevant to someone, to your shared experiences. That is the starting point for solidarity, not adherence to one term or another, one category or another.
I cannot talk about my own relationship with gender without referring to the gender binary, and ascribing to it in some way. Throughout most of my life, I have wanted to be a man, along with feeling that I would be more attuned to a male body. As a child, I was what you would call a ‘tomboy’. As I grew up, the rift between myself and other girls seemed to grow. Our attitudes and interests diverted. I began to think that I was different. A flat chest and a series of unfortunate haircuts mean I have, throughout my life, had strangers repeatedly ask me ‘T’es une fille ou un garcon?’ (this sing-song phrase is burned into my mind), ‘Are you a man or a woman’, and finally ‘Are you a guy or a bird, pal? I have internalised these questions but I have no real answer for them. It’s true that I don’t feel like a woman. I have never felt myself to be a member of this exclusive group or felt that I was able to communicate best with other women. As I gained more of an understanding of the mechanics of sexism, through the personal education that every woman gets in life, whether they want it or not, I started to realise that I was not unique. All women feel the pressure of having to conform to contradictory gender norms. as I became radicalised, and questioned gender more thoroughly, I worked hard not to feel like a man in a woman’s body, and instead redefine for myself what it meant to be a women so that I could be proud of the body that i have. Pride is an odd thing. It is absurd to be proud of your sex, your nationality, the color of your skin, because these things are outside of your control. Nevertheless, pride is hugely important for people who experience oppression. If people tell you all your life that you are worth less than them for whatever reason, you need to be able to respond with pride. Another word for this is dignity. This is what it has taken for me to be strong in a world that tells me I will never be good enough. Because I have struggled with my own gender identity, I would never assume to tell somebody how they should feel about their own. Someone with similar experiences to my own might have decided to identity as cis, trans or as a man. Every person I have met has different attitudes to and experiences of gender and has reached their own highly personal conclusions. No one can invalidate how you feel about yours.
The reason I made peace with the fact that I was a woman was that I realised I couldn’t escape it. Growing up in Brussels, I experienced more than my fair share of street harassment. The only occasion on which I have ever worn a mini skirt, the level of abuse I received had me hurrying home in tears but whatever I wore, being a girl made me a target for daily insults, threats, and sometimes physical assaults. Socially, I have tried and failed to be ‘one of the guys’, only to find that even my friends’ treatment of me is gendered. I have been severely unbalanced by social implosions I have experienced as a result of this gendering. At work, I have continuously had to prove myself to have certain ‘male’ qualities which my male colleagues are assumed to possess. But I have never experienced sexism more insidious or more controlling than in the political organisations of which I was a member.
There is a special look that male activists have for a woman when they don’t want to listen to her. It’s a face you wouldn’t pull at a child because it is withering. it doesnt convey annoyance at what you’re saying, rather at the fact that you’re speaking at all, droning on like an annoying little bug. Men don’t see that face and if you pointed it out to them, they’d say you were paranoid. There’s a magical thing that happens in a meeting when a woman gets up to speak. It entails the shuffling of chairs, the clearing of throats, whispering and nose blowing. Men don’t notice this. They need to have it pointed out to them, consistantly and over time. they need to be reminded that its not ideal to have majority male panels, male representatives, male perspectives.
All the time that you would have to spend if you pointed out every minute instance of sexism within an organisation would leave little time for discussions of feminist theory or tactics. This is why I believe that it is important for women to organise together, separately from men, in their own spaces, where they can discuss the common issue that they face. I believe with all my heart that that is what women need. We need to organise and gain consciousness as a class unto itself in order to finally overthrow the patriarchy. i do not see the patriarchy as being second to, or owing it’s existence to capitalism. I believe that women wordlwide have common goals and interests. I believe that the overthrowal of the patriarchy is a vital step to defeating capitalism (and even if it wasn’t, it would still be worth doing!) and that only women have the perspective and the capability to do this. That is what makes me a radical feminist.
In reality, I have given up on the idea of women-only spaces. They’re too problematic. Once the argument has finally been won for women to be allowed separate spaces, those spaces are torn apart by arguments about what constitutes a ‘woman’. The function of women only spaces is to define what a woman is. I would make myself very unpopular in certain sections of the left if i said that I don’t think most women find this question politically relevant, and rightly so. I would accept anyone, of any sex or gender, into a feminist group if it meant that we could finally treat seriously the (other) issues that concern me as a feminist. What unites feminists is the desire to smash the patriarchy.
I came up on the opposite side of the Sheridan fiasco. I moved to Scotland to study in 2005, with no frame of reference for what was happening at that time, and became politically active a couple of years later. I joined the SWP because they were the only visible group on campus and they were very active at the time with the stop the war movement. Far from an insidious front group, I saw them being active against racism, drawing large numbers to meetings and on demonstration, facilitating the stop the war movement. You could say I sided with Sheridan in the split but to me, at 20, there was only one side of the split. The line I was given as that it was uncontionable to side with the News of the World over a comrade and that he had been the victim of a witchunt. It was years later, when I had reached my own conclusions about the Left’s attitudes to feminism, that I finally heard the whole story, of how secrets were kept within the party, how bullying was rife and democracy completely defunct. The SSY may have been in a unique position to provide insight into this type of crisis, but I don’t recall their presence in my years of activism as a student, through stop the war, campaigns against islamophobia, and against cuts at Glasgow university. I think this is partly because they experienced a slump in activity and recruitment but also because it is so easy as a member of any group, to immerse yourself in internal politics and remain unaware of the work of other groups and individuals. It was only when the free Hetherington opened that I ever came into contact with members of the SSY, and people with other political affiliations. it’s true that the Hetherington did something very special in bringing people of different persuasions together for a time. I think this was achieved at the start, rightly or wrongly, because the core of student activists that began it made a clear effort to separate themselves from the SWP who then largely snubbed it. For me, it was a unique opportunity to gain new perspectives, and to have mine challenged (and in some cases strengthened).
What I found most refreshing about the Hetherington was people attitudes to gender. I had long found that identifying as a feminist was a bad idea in the SWP and had few close female comrades. Here was a space which was defined from the start as feminist, where women could speak openly about sexism. It was never perfect but it was the first space I had experienced where I felt protected from sexism, at least in its more overt forms. The best thing about it was that men did not have the power to cut women out of activities, be it organising or socialising. Because we shared the same space and everyone was welcome, women didn’t need to compete to take part in exclusive discussions, they were included from the start. Women who have spent a significant amount of time in any organisation will be familiar with the subtle tools men make use of to ensure that they are in the majority. In the Hetherington, you couldn’t exclude somebody by leaving their number out of group texts, forgetting to tell them about a meeting or social event, or by moving to another space to caucus in secret (except that one time). I never really stayed the night at the Hetherignton (I was working 5am shifts for the duration) so I am disappointed to read that people were not safe while they slept. I knew that there were grievances of this nature, that claims had been made that the space was unsafe but at no point did i have a candid discussion with any of the women concerned about what the dangers were, despite my efforts. this is my greatest regret for the Hetherington. As an outsider, I found myself unable to fully partake in discussions. Cliques formed which dealt with instances of sexism in their own way, instead of involving women in the process.
The point is not to speak for other women but to speak to them. I have read several articles by white women criticizing ‘cis’ commentary on ‘trans’ issues which also make assertions about the priorities of ‘women of color’. I do not see it as my place to speak for women who experience racism but I do have an awareness of it. Rather than using privilege to speak for those who are denied a voice and to promote a specific discourse, we can actively encourage links of communication between communities of people based on a common principle of respect.
Of course when discussing oppression, its best to listen to people who have personal experience as members of oppressed groups but this is one of the many tenants of left wing thought that applies to feminism and little else. The Left constantly tolerates and promotes the views and opinions of spokespeople on topics they have no knowledge of. Despite his complete failure to apologise for the absurd conclusions he drew about Fukashima nuclear power plant, George Monbiot is continually permitted to comment on environmental issues as well as everything else. Owen Jones, who gained recognition with his book ‘Chavs’ (and heavy promotion by the Labour Party) is now authorised to comment on a whole range of topics, including the war in Syria. We don’t mind that our spokespeople are not ideologically pure or have an encyclopedic political knowledge, as long as they are saying what we want them to say. The problem with being a feminist (of any persuasion) is that nobody really wants to hear what you have to say. Gaining recognition as a woman for having interesting or strong ideas about feminism, does not authorise you to speak on a range of topics. It pinholes you as a feminist, a single issue activist with a narrow vision. Intersectionality is the feminist’s response; that sexism pervades the mechanics of oppression in complex and inter-related ways. This is another helpful concept whos use is open to manipulation and perversion. It is easy to criticise someone for lacking ‘intersectionality’ This accusation is more frequently used on the left to defeat feminist arguments than to support them. The fact that you are a woman does not qualify you to speak about women’s oppression if you have failed to include an adequate analysis of race, class, gender, what have you.Take Mona Eltahawy’s eminently well-researched and balanced article ‘Why do they hate us?‘ detailing the oppression of women in Arab nations. Her article enraged the left internationally. A woman who exposes the abuse of women in Arab countries could only be working as a Western stooge. the fact that she was well-educated and ‘middle-class’ was taken to invalidate her analysis, and to present her as separate from the women she was writing about. I didn’t read a single response to her article that was as eloquent and no one found fault with any of the facts or statistics that she provided. It was the very fact of her writing about it that was the problem. She was speaking for others, for people who’s experiences she had not shared, and this (for a woman) is unforgivable. I have frequently heard women told they have no right to comment on sexism in their country because they are ‘middle class’, and their experiences thus not authentic. Being a woman seldom seems to qualify a woman to talk about sexism. Whatever you write, you will alternately be accused of failing to speak about issues which are relevant to every oppressed group, or of speaking for an oppressed group of which you are not a member. You can’t win.
The issue of mental health is one that is being touched on more and more in relation to these discussions. I would like to see an environment where people are permitted to speak candidly about these issues in relation to feminism and I’m grateful to women who are open about their mental health issues because they make it possible for others to be. I know that I am not the only woman who has sat and recounted her experience of the Scottish Left to a therapist, while wondering what they really make of it all. It is something that is very close to my heart, which i would like to explore in another article. All I want to say is this: it is the hardest thing in the world to be kind and understanding to someone who has shown you no kindness or understanding themselves. I read somewhere once that ‘kind people are happy people’, and it made me sad because I wasn’t. People who feel alone and alienated are the least likely to reach out and find common ground with others. We seldom realise that others are suffering when we are suffering ourselves. Rather than assuming that everyone’s coping perfectly and achieving all their goals, I sometimes think we should assume that everyone has mental health problems. It may not be too far from the truth. We need to be kinder to one another.
This is the single most important conclusion that my experience of the Scottish Left has brought me to: women need to be kinder to one another. As feminists, we cannot build a movement without building solidarity. I have never seen vitriol like that which women on the left are capable of hurling at each other. I think this is because, despite the vast arsenal at their disposition, men can’t hurt us the way we can hurt each other. Life as a woman leaves you with countless painful memories of men using the patriarchy against you but worse still are the memories we all have of the women who made use of the patriarchy to succeed ‘in our place’. We compete with each other, not with men. It is the perceived successes of other women which irk us the most. We are trained from an early age to forgive men for their privilege and ignorance. There are small gains to be made by doing so. There is little material gain to be made by tolerating the ambitions of women. Women who manage to achieve a level of influence or respect for themselves are seldom in a stable enough position to stick their necks out for others. Having strong female voices in a movement does little for the confidence of the majority of women, if they still find that their voices are ignored. I know how hard it is to do but, to an extent, I believe that women need to learn to separate their feminism from the rest of their political activity. However different our priorities may be, we need to remember that we are allies in the fight against the patriarchy.
If women feel the need to compete with one another for the right to call themselves feminist, there is something very unhealthy at the heart of this movement. Feminism should make use of left wing tenants such as that practical activity with common objectives brings people closer together and facilitates collaborative political development. Being a feminist needn’t conclusively define every aspect of your political activity. It should define your attitude, and hopefully, your behaviour towards women, regardless of their membership of one group or another.