The difference between difference and diversity

Over the past few months I’ve read a few of the women-of-colour feminist classics. Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider” and Trinh Minh-ha’s “Woman, Native, Other” were probably the most moving ones. Lorde and Minh-ha come from a very particular generation of feminists and their books deal with very particular ideas and ways of articulating these ideas. I found myself both relating to this – in the sense that it was these women who laid the foundations for my own feminist consciousness – but also not relating in some cases. I found that this was most acute when the topic of difference came up.

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Lorde and Minh-ha, as well as so many other feminists of colour from that generation – Gloria Anzaldua, Angela Davis, Alice Walker – spoke often of difference as something good. Differences existed, and had to be acknowledged. But beyond this acknowledgement, there was a call to unite across these differences, or to unite through difference.

I found myself getting uncomfortable every time this came up in these books. And I eventually realized that this was because my generation of feminists have experienced the co-optation, whitewashing and repackaging of difference into the concept of diversity. When someone uses the term difference, I automatically associate it with the idea of diversity, and find myself reacting negatively. I assume that this person means we should all unite and be friends, that difference should not divide us, that diversity is great. All things I know are untrue, and dangerous to believe. And so my association with the terms difference and diversity are negative.

This generation is told that diversity is a good thing, it shows that we don’t need radical politics anymore because equality is near. Ultimately it has acted as a very depoliticizing tool. Through certain institutions and people, including the university, the idea of difference was de-radicalized, sanitized, and turned into the neoliberal-friendly idea of diversity. Many feminists have written about the problems with diversity as a concept, including the amazing Sara Ahmed. Diversity can never be a radical notion, or even a political one. But I had never noticed this particular genealogy: that those using the idea of diversity in feminism probably drew directly from these feminists of colour in the 1960s, 70s and 80s who spoke of difference.

But when these women spoke of difference, they spoke of it at two levels: the differences between women of colour and white women, which are, as Minh-ha, writes, awkward, difficult, fraught with tension. And then there are the differences among women of colour, or women of colour in the West and Third World women, or lesbian women and heterosexual women, and so on. In other words, there is a binary at play here that distinguishes different levels of difference. Not all differences are equally valuable. And not all differences should be treated in the same way. Differences between women of colour are very real, but these can act as a source of energy and inspiration. These are the types of differences that propel movements forward, that lead to difficult conversations that can be life-saving. In other words, these differences are very valuable.

This is not to say that differences between women of colour and white women are invaluable, or only cause harm. I have always believed that these differences are also important to discuss, interrogate, try to unpack. But this must be done while bearing in mind that there is a specific hierarchy always there, and not necessarily in the background. And when it is a material and ideological hierarchy, rather than simply vertical divisions, it can be difficult to unite and struggle together for the same causes.

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The point is that they saw difference in a very positive light because they understood difference differently than we do today, where the term has been repackaged. Differences between women had to be acknowledged, because they were responding to first and second wave feminism that insisted on universal sisterhood. Difference was therefore something productive, a way of uniting to create a different type of society. This was never framed as something easy, or based on simplistic notions of quotas or tokenism. It was always based on radical political struggle and change. Today we have learned to assume that difference is accepted, and that it is not political. But it seems to me that returning to this more radical understanding of differences could act as a very important source of energy for critical, radical, decolonial and postcolonial feminists today.

My thoughts on Femen & feminism

I just finished watching an episode of al-Jazeera Stream, where one of the women from the feminist group Femen was speaking. Femen have become widely known over the past few years, particularly for their tactic of stripping to protest patriarchy. Their logic goes like this: women’s bodies are consistently used by men and the media and don’t really belong to us, so we must take them back by re-appropriating them as a symbol of resistance of patriarchy. Therefore stripping becomes an act of “taking back our bodies” and a way to stand up against patriarchy. While I completely agree with this logic, as well as with the fact that in today’s world our bodies still don’t belong to us, what I find problematic about Femen is their tendency to universalize their feminist vision. What works for them, should work for all women, everywhere.

Now this isn’t the first time feminism has confronted this issue. First and second wave feminists in the US, for example, were notorious for excluding women who weren’t like them: white, middle-class, American. Their feminism was distinctly local, but was branded and spread as ‘universal’ and if women didn’t adopt it then they were anti-feminist. The woman form Femen who was on al-Jazeera was eerily reminiscent of those kind of discourses, especially when she accused the other participants of not being feminists because they didn’t agree with Femen’s tactics.

Femen have also been famous for their focus on Muslim women (again, what’s new). Their protest in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower where they wore burqas and then stripped, as well as their decision to march naked through a Muslim neighbourhood in Paris demonstrate their belief that the way most Muslim women dress is against feminism and against liberation. In this case they have defined liberation in a very specific way, and that is the main issue I have with them.

Many feminists define liberation as essentially wearing as little as possible. The more you wear, the more oppressed you are. It is only within this context that a process of stripping can be seen as a liberating process. While this may be the case for some women, it is certainly not the case for me, or for most women I know. That doesn’t mean we aren’t feminists—it means that we see liberation differently. The reason I’m a feminist is because I believe every woman should have a choice in how she lives. These choices are obviously dependent on socially constructed ideas, norms and values. What a woman can choose in Egypt is not the same as what a woman can choose in Paris, simply because societies see different things as “good” or “bad.” Contrary to what western feminists may think, not every woman wears the veil because she’s forced to by her violent, patriarchal father. By labelling specific things as “feminist” or “anti-feminist,” you are yet again imposing rules and boundaries on women—which is exactly what you claim patriarchy does.

Feminism can only succeed if we accept diversity. There is no way we can fight against a system as strongly entrenched as patriarchy if we keep up all this in-fighting about who is a good feminist and who isn’t a feminist at all. Feminism shouldn’t be about whether a veil is “okay” or not—it should be about whether a woman was forced to wear a veil, just as it should be about whether a woman in Paris was forced to wear a mini-skirt. It should be about the effects of capitalism, of racism, of Islamophobia on the everyday lives of women. Feminism has the potential to be greatly emancipatory by adopting an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic and anti-Islamophobic rhetoric, instead of often actively being racist, homophobic, transphobic and Islamophobic.