16 April 2020

Feminism, Interrupted: A Conversation with Lola Olufemi and Momtaza Mehri

Posted by Lola Olufemi

Lola Olufemi and Momtaza Mehri were due to be in conversation at the shop this week, to discuss the ideas explored in Lola’s new book Feminism, Interrupted (Pluto Press), but events interceded to make that impossible. In place of their live conversation, we’re delighted to host instead a wide-ranging email conversation between the two writers.

Momtaza Mehri: Grappling with feminism as a slippery living project is always a huge undertaking. How did you know where to begin with this book? How did you decide where your interruptions were most needed?

Lola Olufemi: One thing I knew when I was writing was that I didn’t want to present feminism, as I understand it, as a simple ‘solution’. The interruption was more of a reassertion or a remaking of a case about feminism as a frame that can help us think about our freedoms and the freedoms of others. I think of my own ‘journey’ to critical thinking and how it involved needing to change my mind and change it again when presented with new ideas or critical arguments. That’s what it means to me to think about feminism as a living, breathing object – to know that the work of thinking, organising, imagining is never done and to understand the long and rich history of this frame that I’m trying to open others to. I wanted to make what I think is an obvious critique – that liberals have gutted feminism of its transformative potential as a political frame but also that in the arena of representation, the liberal understanding of feminism has become what feminism is. So when we think about feminism in the UK we don’t think about the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent or the Brixton Black Women’s Group or Claudia Jones, Maud White, Olive Morris, the Grunwick Strike, campaigns against SUSS laws and virginity testing in the UK, we don’t think of austerity or prison abolition… we’re called to think about the women who have campaigned to put white women’s faces on money or erected statues with vague platitudes. It’s interesting to me that discursively, radical feminist history remains hidden to liberal feminism’s audience – precisely because it calls on them to contend with problems they have no answer for. It also helps perpetuate the myth that feminist gains have been made without putting things – lives, bodies, careers, principles – on the line; it effectively lowers the stakes. The aim is not to simply bring a more radical feminism into the mainstream but to reflect on what made that kind of radical thinking practice so abject to the mainstream in the first place.

Liberal accounts of feminism are intellectually dishonest and insulting to those of us who care about the way this world has been made unliveable for so many. We’re tasked with providing a counter to the dominance of liberal feminism – that counter comes in many forms and this is just adding to that legacy. That’s not the whole task though and so I also wanted to include reflections and evidence of the work being done that make the case against the grand narrative that is told about feminist history (read: white, middle class). Those of us assigned to the ‘periphery’ have always been doing the kind of feminist work that recognises that every single one of us has a claim to life and a duty to make that claim possible through struggles against gendered, racialised capitalism. I want the book to be an invitation. I feel indebted to black feminism as a frame of thinking and wanted to defend it, to pose questions about the ways feminism helps us think and rethink. So critical feminism, the kind I’m advocating for (it’s hard to definitively name what stands in opposition to liberal feminism anymore because every descriptor eg. ‘radical’, calls up different meanings and associations depending on who you are) mandates that no person is left behind, every person deserves to come under the scope of our protection and consideration as feminists. That for me is why feminism is about workers, about prison abolition, about thinking against and beyond the state, about rethinking ‘gender’ and ‘humanness’ as categories of intelligibility and an end to every prevailing system of violence.

MM: In the introduction, you write ‘Everybody has a story about how they arrived and keep arriving at radical politics. Some of us are politicised by the trauma of our own experiences, by wars waged in our names, by our parents and lovers, by the internet. It’s useful to share the ways we become politicised if only because it helps politicise others.’ But beyond the uses of lived experience, you also touch on how it can be weaponized at the expense of structural analysis.

LO: There are lots of things at play here. I think it’s about how those of us on the underside of governing structures arrive at radical politics and critical thinking – through feelings of alienation brought on by individual or interpersonal experiences. Obviously, the visceral experience of racism and sexism and how both things mark you as abject can be a way to begin to investigate how the world is organised to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. I find it interesting how those experiences can be dismissed by certain sections of the left, as if there is a preordained or ‘correct’ way to arrive at a certain kind of politics. I think the dismissal of ‘identity politics’ really misunderstands the claims it makes. The Combahee River Collective clearly outlined their understanding of it when they said they saw their task as ‘the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.’ They recognised the limits of dominant frames of Marxist thinking and used live experience to flesh it out and expand it, so that it might properly attend to their lives and be useful to them. Nobody knows more about racial capitalism than the black worker, nobody knows more about the gendered implications of labour than women workers. To dismiss the claims they make from those positions, as if they don’t have material consequences, is lazy. The CRC and women like Claudia Jones, who introduced the concept of the ‘superexploitation’ of black women, for example were making the case that by incorporating race and gender as exploitative structures into analysis, Marxists could properly help to clarify machineries of exploitation and their differing consequences. When Jones wrote in ‘We Seek Full Equality for Women’ (1949) that ‘the triply-oppressed status of Negro women is a barometer of the status of all women’ she was arguing for a frame of analysis that properly honoured working class black women’s suffering but she was also arguing that it was in the interests of white workers to properly understand the differing outcomes of the structures they were seeking to oppose… or else they’d never adequately be able to oppose them. The creators of identity politics, more than anyone else, were aware of the limits of identity markers which is why they argued for an integrated analysis not an absolutist one.

I think in more contemporary discussions that nuance can sometimes be lost. The fierce class politics of the originators of this integrated analysis can be erased. I think that’s how we can get to a depressing place where feminism is Hilary Clinton dropping bombs and Shell adding an apostrophe to their brand name for International Women’s Day. I think that’s also a consequence of neoliberalism. Everything is so atomised that resulting political demands emerge only at the level of what you look like and the position from which you speak, losing sight of larger group interests or political structures. I think what we lose when we have conversations only at the level of lived experience is the ability to make a wider case about how the world could be and draw attention to the messier, more complicated issues at play. If feminism is only when women ‘do’ things, what gets hidden is how some women’s suffering becomes a naturalised part of other women's successes. It also proceeds as if ‘woman’ is a universal category of agreement including no disruption, contention or dissent. Claims made solely on the basis of identity can never evolve, there is no where to go if the frame is simply, ‘as a woman, X argues this but as a woman, Y disagrees.’ A feminism that is striving for liberation, for new worlds, for something else can’t solely be legitimized by a speaker’s identifying markers – that’s not a radical ambition, it’s capitulation in my honest opinion.

MM: I really admire how you define feminism as inherently riddled with almost irresolvable contradictions that can hold fresh possibilities. In your words, it’s a framework with ‘no coherence, or consensus’. What do you think we can learn from today’s divisions within (especially Black) feminism/s?

LO: I think the idea of frames of thought as disparate and incoherent really scares people because the inability to make a universal claim or universal demands means the journey to freedom is longer and more complicated but I think, just as consequence of how I learnt about the different schools of feminist thought in school, I’ve always been at peace with that. I don’t believe in universals but I do believe in an idea that I take from Audre Lorde, that sitting with tension, with distortion, is productive. That the tension caused when we place different kinds of feminism in conversation with one another create new routes, modes of thinking and practices that get us closer to what our perceived goals are. I loved the tweet that you did where you stated that you’d learnt things from different, overlapping and sometimes conflicting theorists. I think it perfectly sums up something that I’m always striving towards, to understand and incorporate different ideas from different strands of feminism that are all making a claim about the way the world should be. Liberation means chaos, it might mean a million different ideas at once and that potential excites me. To recognise that this frame of thought advocates many things, some conflicting is not to give in to the idea that no short-term political demands can be made – the urgency of the conditions of our lives make those demands clear to us. Embracing chaos doesn’t mean embracing abstraction.

But that misplaced anxiety about a lack of a universal position also shows itself in a dark and ugly way. To take womanhood as an example – opposing biological essentialism and all essentialisms in the contemporary arena puts you on one side of a very marked debate about the source of women’s oppression (which is not more important than the abolishing the structures that keep us subordinated). As black women, you and I already speak from positions of incoherence, right? We’ve never been granted entry into a womanhood that has been constructed along a racial axis. I think that’s where my commitment to challenging myths of universalism comes from. When you do that, you make gatekeepers of womanhood or of contemporary liberal feminist thinking angry. For example, when I declined to speak at a feminist conference because of its clear links to TERF organisations or even when I named TERFs as what they are, trans exclusionary radical feminists, I was met with a barrage of criticism from tenured professors about what feminism ‘is’ and what it is not. It was insinuated that I had no understanding of the battles fought and won by the ‘feminists’ I was critiquing. That again, insists that there is and always has been one unitary feminist movement making singular demands as part of a linear progress narrative. I don’t believe that’s true and what today’s divisions teach us is that there is still much at stake about who gets to define what feminism and feminist practice is, whose histories matter in that regard and most pressingly – that there is swathes of ‘feminist’ thinking dedicated to rendering trans life impossible and unsurprisingly, finding comradery with crypto-facists and scientific racists along the lines of ‘free speech.’ What’s also clear is that there is a younger generation of grassroots feminist activism attentive to material conditions, critical of the state and institutions that goes unremarked upon by liberal feminism because the only arenas of resistance it recognises are the realms of law and policy. As always, we’ve never been more divided!

MM: I’m interested in your conversation with Gail Lewis, a founding member of Brixton Black Women’s Group and the OWAAD. Lewis reflects on how ‘movements struggle to articulate where they are going as they happen’. In writing this book, how do you see these defining struggles articulating themselves within contemporary feminism/s?

LO: I love that quote from Gail, it reminds me of how important it is to think of our movements as iterative, to adopt strategies and abandon them when and if they start to fail us. I think right now, the biggest questions are about how we make community organising seem like a viable route for those that are beginning to recognise the limits of electoral politics. Especially in this moment that is merely exacerbating ongoing disaster, contemporary feminist movements can make a case for a feminist ethics of care in crisis – that means building from where we are without relying solely on state entities. We have the ongoing fight against liberal feminism’s encroachment of what it means to be a feminist, which necessirily includes fights about law and policy. Opposing the Domestic Violence Bill, for example, that promises a ‘tough on crime’ approach to criminalise perpetrators (and by proximity, survivors) and recommends deporting survivors if they cannot be helped. Drawing attention to the devastating consequences of ten years of austerity and how most spending cuts have disproportionately affected women and their families. It means resisting attempts to further criminalise sex work in this country, finding methods of opposing sexual violence that do not bolster the prison industrial complex and staying attentive to the violence of the border and its repurcussions – giving our time and energy and words to anti-raid networks and other radical formations. I don’t think there is any way to be prescriptive about what those struggles will be but I do think practicing a critical feminism also opens us up to an understanding that we have to think transnationally, as those before us did. I really love this conversation between Helen Charman and Camille Barbagbello where Barbagbello says that when we ‘think about the politics of translation with regards to feminist struggles and political movements internationalist issues return: how would feminist politics from “over there” look and feel “over here”? Why do things happen differently in different places? Why do certain things seem possible and others not? How is politics to be translated, so to speak?’

MM: Black feminism appears to be another contested orientation. You write about Black women being ‘locked out of womanhood’, of our theorizing outside its boundaries. Ideally, this is a position from which we can transform the meaning and potential of the category itself. Inclusion within this category doesn’t seem to be a worthwhile, or even desirable goal to you. Am I right in thinking this?

LO: Absolutely. Thinkers like Hortense Spillers, Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak and Chandra Mohanty, albeit in different ways, clarified for me what the purpose of womanhood is in a feminist discussion. Spillers, especially, allowed me to understand how the history of slavery and captivity made/makes gender impossible. That gave words to the feeling of being locked out, why I and so many others often felt like aliens when ideas of universal womanhood or universal femininity were enacted. It’s generative to have theorists who demand you to look beyond the totalising boundaries of gender. This completely abolished attachment to gender or to femininity as the things that make me what I am. The violence that I and others experience because of the designation ‘woman’ is very real, of course, and so is the way we come to understand our gender, but the two ideas can exist at the same time. I think what theorists that ask us to consider gender as a strategic coalition or as a political strategy in the arena of representation are doing is asking us to recognise the limits of the discourses we are trapped in and outsmart them by using that language to our own end. We make demands as ‘women’ in order to be free and in order to free others, that’s a very clear mandate. Language needn’t mean belief that there is such a thing as ‘woman’ outside of the meanings that have been enacted to construct this category.

MM: You write that ‘white feminist neo-liberal politics focuses on the self as vehicle for self-improvement and personal gain at the expense of others.’ Is this solely a politics for white middle class women by white middle class women or can the rest of us also be provisionally drafted in to do its bidding?

LO: We can the second we start to think of ourselves as unmoored from other people. We’ve seen the individualising turn also reappear in the way that ideas of self-care, a radical claim for those of us the world wants dead, has morphed into a way for liberals to avoid accountability or refuse to contribute or avoid sitting in discomfort. In one poem, Wendy Trevino writes ‘Let me tell you / We can’t individually “win” in this world / & simultaneously create another / Together.’ I think what she’s calling us to realise is that if we dream of liberation, if we want it, we’re going to have to relinquish ideas of individual success and to really grapple with the fact that getting to the ‘top’, climbing the rungs of institutions and corporate ladders, always relies on someone else’s suffering. The suffering is built in. That’s something we all have to contend with, even those of us who have been historically ‘shut out’ of those institutions whose legitimacy we crave because of race and gender. The question that I’m always coming back to is, what violence will my politics help to expose? How can it help make us alive to the chain of exploitation that makes the ladder possible. I think, to stick with this metaphor, even being able to consider climbing the ladder as a route to success is indicative of one’s class position.

MM: Could you speak a little about your choice to include a chapter on gendered Islamophobia?

LO: This was the hardest chapter to write. But I knew I wanted to include it because the consequences of gendered Islamophobia are so wide-reaching – from street harassment to sexual violence to physical violence. Liberal feminism has no way to account for it. My visibly Muslim friends recount instances of harm almost daily, and I really wanted to get across that it’s hard to even think or theorise about the position of Muslim women in the UK because discourses have literally rendered them invisible/unthinkable and turned them into rhetorical devices weaponised by different political actors. Liberals feminists use Islam and the perceived oppression of Muslim women to push for secularity as a moral imperative and fascists, and white supremacists use them as vehicles for the expression of their state mandated rage. The task is a lot more than ‘humanising’ Muslim people (whatever that means) or even making the violence enacted against them visible, it’s about unpicking the gendered and racialised implications of both of those desires and then recognising how invisibilising Muslim women restricts them from being recognised as deserving of inclusion under the scope of secular feminist protection. The task is of course to question how secularity is weaponised by governments and also liberal feminist frames. That formulation excludes the fact that Muslim feminists have been theorising their own position for centuries. I think the points that both Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan and Hareem Ghani make in that chapter are so astute – that liberal feminist and white supremacist desires are of course, a legacy of colonialism but that they’re also tied up with the nation. So that Muslim people and the resultant conversations about ‘counter-terror’ or the inherent illiberalism of Islam, become the conduit through which the nation has conversations about itself and how the border is reified. Liberal feminism has no meaningful response to the border – it can’t even contend that it should be questioned. So it will never be able to approach the position of Muslim women.

MM: We were supposed to be in physical conversation for your book B.C. (Before Covid-19). Now we’re doing this over email. This pandemic is rupturing, or interrupting, the very fabric of our imaginations. Thinking with ‘The Sexist State’, I appreciated your framing of austerity as instrumentalised patriarchal violence (particularly regarding the Conservative government’s two-child cap on child tax credits and the subsequent ‘rape clause’). I don’t know what’s on the other side of all this, but I’m grimly bracing myself for more punitive austerity. How are you using feminism as an analytic to wrap your head around this crisis and what it means for the most vulnerable women in our communities?

LO: For me, moments like this call on us to unleash our imaginative potential as feminists and as people who care about this world. That means understanding and being realistic about the misery that is to come, ushered in by state and its laws. That’s already happening – the Covid-19 Bill expands police powers to arrest, fine and detain and practically suspends the Care Act 2014, which mandates local councils to meet the needs of disabled adults and their carers, (unless doing so would breach their human rights.) Both of those measures, we know, disproportionately affect poor people, black people and people of colour, all those who cannot afford to socially distance and so on. An imaginative response means pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will as Gramsci tells us, it means returning to local networks and fortifying them, it means refusing to stay silent and resisting the urge to be reactionary by narrowing the scope of our political project or demands. Doing this over and over again. Many of the people I know don’t organise with an ‘endpoint’ in mind, I think that is such a masculinist way to think about time and the worlds we seek to build. I take from Tina Campt the idea that black feminist futurity is a ‘performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must’. That means sitting with impossibility and anxiety and trying our best to remake the world through our words and our actions and our relations. Resistance is imperative not because it means we will always ‘win’ but because we change something in the doing, something is changed when we refuse to give up the capacity to think beyond the given and act accordingly. I take that from Saidiya Hartman. When I was lucky enough to be in conversation with her, she said something about how ‘optimism’ is too facile to root an entire politics in, pessimism offers us something in the way it trains our eyes on the urgency of the moment - current and historical. Recognising this needn’t mean stasis or immobilisation or depression. The aim is always to do away with time, to enact the future now, to move towards that other thing and not lose sight of it.

MM: Finally, because it’s a question I always love to ask: Do you have a favourite poem?

LO: I like Jackie Wang’s idea that poets are the timekeepers of the revolution. This is so hard because my favourite poem changes all the time. As an English graduate, years of reading certain kinds of poetry left me with a low tolerance for ambivalence. I’m finding now that decidedly political poetry is the only thing that makes me feel anything. I guess, two poems as a statement of my politics are Bertolt Brecht’s ‘And I Always Thought’ and Diane di Prima’s ‘Revolutionary Letter #2’.

Feminism, Interrupted is published by Pluto Press, priced £9.99.