One time, I found myself drinking beer with a group of women who all strongly identified as feminists. In a world of “I’m not a feminist, but…” it was an affirming moment. That was until the conversation turned to a more risque subject, and someone said: “all women want sex, it’s only natural.”
It sounds like an important point to make, when the patriarchy constantly tells us that women are not allowed to be sexual. But as the only asexual person in the room, I choked on my drink, a little taken aback. The statement implied that women like myself were not natural – a charge that we have had to long defend ourselves from.
I worried about the lack of understanding that a few stray words had revealed. Because they had the ability to erase entire identities, and experiences of marginalisation. And even within the spaces we consider “progressive” and “bold”, instances like these, where in fighting oppression we become oppressors ourselves in a way, are many.
A feminist I knew once refused a selfie because she said she “looked like a maid” that day. This seemingly harmless remark perpetuates the dangerous patriarchal idea that women have to look a certain way to be of value. It typecasts the ‘look’ a certain kind of person, with a certain kind of profession, as something to be ashamed of. Not to mention the way it undermines the work they do, that we benefit from.
And, despite the body-positivity movement’s best efforts, we do this in other ways too. When we comfort friends who feel punished for not living up to arbitrary standards of beauty, why do we still say things like, “No, no, you’re not fat. Have you seen her?” or “Don’t be silly, you’re not as dark skinned as him.”
I saw two human rights defenders focus disproportionately on the physical traits of a few trans women they had met. Maybe they thought they were being openly accepting of the trans community? But, as queer and trans people themselves have said, it’s a problem when you applaud someone who “passes” as a woman, because deep down you still think of them as a man. And it’s a problem when you think your approval as a cisgender (read: “real”) woman is the validation all trans women seek. (Needless to say, the same goes for complimenting trans men.)
We reserve our anger for men who think they get to decide which women deserve respect and which don’t. But all too often we do the same by lumping all women together, and fighting for only the most visible (and usually privileged) women. This leaves out the struggles of Dalit and adivasi women, of working class women, of migrant and refugee women, of queer and trans women.
It speaks volumes, when the few small spaces created for marginalised groups are largely populated by people who have historically benefited from that marginalisation. While allies to any movement exercise a great degree of power, and are valuable, but supporting a community should not begin to look like taking over its space, or participation for social justice brownie points only. Allies need to take the spaces they already occupy and make them queer-friendly and inclusive.
The fact that you and I can read and share this piece means we are privileged. And we can and should use our privilege to shine a light on issues that do not directly affect us. But when we begin to speak for marginalised people, when we appropriate their struggles, it’s a problem. We can put our privilege to better use by creating and defending spaces where oppressed people can represent and empower themselves.
“I did my reading, you do yours” was a retort I would invariably fall back on, in an attempt to put the onus of learning and acting on people who were not-queer, not-Dalit, not-black, not-trans, not-marginalised. But I quickly learnt that this approach also had a way of alienating people, including those within our movements. In many ways, it smacks of the kind of exclusionary elitism we are fighting. Recognising that not everyone has access to theory means having conversations in ways that more people can join in, and also opening up new discussions that we may have overlooked.
Not only is “crazy” super ableist and dismissive of people living with mental illness, it also blots out any possibility of dialogue. Closing ourselves off from conversations and from all criticism also prevents us from re-evaluating some of our own shortcomings. It prevents us from exploring a point of view that might have contributed something of value to our understanding of issues
If the US Election last year has taught us anything, it’s the danger of dismissing people with differing opinions by calling them names. “Let’s engage” has to be our mantra for change.
Can you guess what the common denominator is between compliments like “she’s a career woman, and a good mother” and rebukes like “she puts her career in front of family“? It’s the assumption that a woman’s default is always set to mother-mode, and it erases those parts of her identity that do not depend on her relationship to her children. Further, it elevates motherhood to an ideal to aspire to, putting undue pressure on women who cannot or do not want to be mothers.
I saw how a queer man I know was repeatedly reproached by other queer people, for bringing up his Muslim identity, and how it compounded the issues he faced. For the sake of putting up a united front in the face of an oppressor, we have forgotten to criticise ourselves. We have clicked our tongues and rolled our eyes at comrades who have raised issues internally, telling them “pick your battles”, telling them they can’t “always be on”, telling them their questions and anger are an inconvenience to our comfortable stupor, and often subsuming their very different identities into a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Our movements need to be intersectional at all time, not just when it’s convenient. And we need to do this because all oppression is connected.
At no point do we want to replace an oppressive hierarchy with a more benevolent form of itself. This means that people with privilege – of caste, class, race, sexuality, gender, ability, etc – need to keep examining their position of power, and the role they play in any movement. It means we need to step back, when we are part of a dominant class, and listen to what marginalised communities tell us – especially when they tell us we’re not being good allies.
Many of us are blissfully unaware of our privilege, and it is often a rude shock when you have to confront it. But it should become as much a part of our routine as anything else is. Even with the best of intentions, those of us committed to social justice issues can go wrong, but it’s important to keep trying to get it right. And (if I may modify Michael Jackson’s solid advice to be a little more identity-friendly) we simply have to start with the person in the mirror.
Featured image for representational purposes only.