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Why ‘Mainstream Feminism’ Is A Failure To All Those Who Aren’t White (Or Rich)

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By Melayna Williams:

The United #StateofWomen hashtag, video, and subsequent conference seems like a step in the right direction following a recent UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report, chronicling the United States as allowing women’s rights to ‘lag’. What do they mean by ‘lag’? It could be close to 300,000 rapes annually, the statistically astronomical yet inexact rates of one out of three women experiencing some form of intimate partner or domestic violence, which kills more women annually under forty-five years of age than car accidents and cancer combined, women being killed in police custody, the confusing individual state-sponsored denial of reproductive rights and the women who turn to pills and hangers to fill in the gap, lack of media representation, objectification when represented in the media, maternal health care ranking, female genital mutilation (FGM) (500,000 girls in the U.S.), treatment of women and children seeking asylum, number of homeless women, working poor women and so on and so forth. In short, there are many reasons why a #StateofWomen conference is urgently needed in the United States. Especially, given the conference is happening one week after the news of a Stanford University rape survivor, being nothing short of tortured, with a California court decision that her rapist’s potential future is more important than her present.

united state of women
#StateOfWomen video

So, on its face, this conference, the press and social media around the conference seems like a very positive step in the right direction. All you have to do is look at the video promoting the conference which immediately went viral with an all-star cast: Meryl Streep, Tina Fey, Oprah Winfrey, First Lady Michelle Obama, Kerry Washington, Laverne Cox, Christy Turlington, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, and many more. “We are the United State of Women…” Moving past the social media, the website calls the movement to take on “key gender equality issues” and that will “make a difference in our collective future.” More plainly, in the words of Sheryl Sandberg, “Lean in.”

Society will come around, between you working overtime, being denied space in that lab, raped in your dorm room, living in poverty, lacking access to the rope to climb the social ladder nailed together in privilege, you’re not doing enough leaning. Lean in to the military where scathing reports staple together a code of silence and injustice when you’re raped. Lean in and ask your boss, why you’re not getting paid as much as your male counterpart who does less work than you. Lean in and ask why you’re being dragged out of your car, thrown from your desk, handcuffed, but better do it fast.

Why are women being called on to take on key gender issues and not men to rectify their misogyny, nor the government to live up to the social contract that is stationed on it’s value of guaranteeing equal rights under the law? So what is the #UnitedStatesofWomen aside from a hashtag and the video, a compilation of glossy shots of various wealthy women making vague references to pay equity and general female empowerment, while throwing out statements about college (where one out of four women are raped and those rapes are covered up by the college), women coding (where women’s numbers are critically low) and being the boss of a company (women hold 4.2% of leadership or CEO positions in the U.S.)? So, historically, or ‘her-storically’, where do an oppressed people usually go to rectify their social, economic, political or cultural position? Well, perhaps, first, the institutions i.e. college women protesting being raped and denied adequate resources and recourse #CarryThatWeight, @RapedAtSpelman, #RapedAtMoreHouse, #StanfordSurvivor and the plethora more on Facebook, twitter, Tumblr, blogs, tags, and pictures circulating at any given time? Usually Ivy League or Predominantly White Institutions (PWI) get the most attention, boosted by the racial parity, in speaking to rape, in mainstream media. Where do the women lobbying for justice for family members murdered in police custody, denied abortion, targeted for their religion, go? Where are all the tweets and hashtags out in cyberspace targeting, addressing and redressing online harassment so that it ends? People hold the government accountable to policies and values that sustain and promote citizen’s livelihoods.

Anyway, last week: Tuesday, June 14. The State of Women, a two-day event packed with women activists, those selected by the White House out of thousands of applications. Oddly, a trans-black woman was apparently accosted by security and told she better be on good behaviour. Nonetheless, from not being there, we have the tweeted recordings of what took place. President Obama declared that he was a feminist. Next came the Vice President Biden who spoke about consent, not withstanding how it didn’t apply to Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who was accused by Hill of sexual harassment, when Biden was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that moved Thomas’ nomination to Congress for a vote. Oh, and the White House created a hash-tag #ItsOnUs to deal with those university rapes for the activists to hold the government accountable.

Women Summit at White House
Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Source: Cheriss May/Getty

I observed many brilliant and well-known feminists of colour on Twitter, who were at the Summit so it is clear some were in the room. To what extent, the conversation was wholly intersectional and inclusive, I’m not sure. From the extensive and impressive list of speakers, through plenary sessions and solution seminars, the summit seems to have addressed the crucially important global issues facing women today. There does not seem to be much detail about the breakout sessions, and the media seems to be emphasising Barack Obama’s remarks as well as Joe Biden’s and the conversation between Michelle Obama and Oprah. While impactful, we need to know what level of nuance was in the other sessions and the summit overall – was it inclusive and intersectional feminism, or more of the same? Mainstream feminism, packaged neatly for a celebrity co-sign, political lip service and quick public consumption, is not the kind of feminism this world needs.

I understand that unity is a theme that feminism needs on a very general, basic level. What these Hollywood types don’t understand is that they cannot have it both ways: associate with a movement and feel immune to critique as if they are experts at the movement. The nuance that many know is required of intersectional, inclusive feminism is completely absent from this public, state-sanctioned message. This is the kind of feminism that was critiqued by third-wave feminists over twenty years ago. This is the kind of feminism, scholars have dismissed for decades, calling out the erasure of women of colour from literally every ounce of its rhetoric, from false messages of who the suffrage movement served, to today’s skewed statistics of equal pay that erase the dire realities of women of colour. This kind of critique is why this tweet went viral.

The problem with mainstream feminism is that it is power centered – it lacks equity. If a movement is merely trying to catch up with white males, for example, that doesn’t involve sharing when and if the goal is attained. Driving ‘feminism’ into the public discourse is two-fold: it brings about much-needed conversation around equality wholesale and it erases the tireless advocacy of intersectional feminism. Why? For the same reason #heforshe or any of Lena Dunham’s offensively bare-bones analysis works – people don’t ask for more.

We need more than wealthy white women, assuring us that they will let us in, give us crumbs, some jobs and a healthy dose of tokenism. Ideally, we need white women with power and privilege to make space, but as history tells us, space is not usually given, it is demanded. We need more from our feminist icons and well-respected feminist scholars than a stamp of approval for this watered-down messaging .

So when I think of the true #StateofWomen in the US, I think of the trans women who are murdered for existing, the Muslim women erased from mainstream ‘feminist discourse’ and the black women at the front lines of black liberation. That would be a cute commercial – what I saw was more of the same. So when they ask “You with us?” of course I am – kinda, I guess.

About the author:  Melayna Williams is a legal-educated, anti-oppression specialist. Melayna is pursuing her masters of law in anti-discrimination law, with a focus on racial justice, advocacy and judicial discussions of race at all levels of the bench. Her academic work is grounded in community mobilisation, social justice, critical race theory and intersectional feminism. She has worked in human rights law, education law, alternative dispute resolution, social justice and sexual assault crisis response. Along with her academic work, she is interested in the new and creative ways, racial justice work is being done globally and especially outside academic circles and within communities, particularly on social media. She is currently the chair of the Rights Advocacy Coalition for Equality (R.A.C.E.).

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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