Culture · Perspectives

Here We Are: Intersectionality for the Feminist World

These days, intersectionality is a word that buzzes around most feminist circles. People shout it loud and proud, “we’re intersectional!” I’ve sat in many meetings and conferences with fellow feminists – a brown face standing out against a sea of white – where this is the exact phrase that is uttered. “We are intersectional,” they will say, beaming down at us as if that is the end of the formalities. So when, as we proceed, nothing intersectional actually comes up, nobody who derives from the norm of straight, white, cisgendered actually speaks, none of their issues actually get brought up – hey, what’s the damage, right? They’ve said they’re intersectional.

Unsurprisingly, the lack of active intersectionality has spilled over into literature. To put it mildly – it’s difficult to find books by feminists who step outside of these norms, who speak about issues that concern my struggles as a brown woman, or even the struggles that are not part of mainstream feminism which I would like to educate myself about. Even as someone who scours the depths of the internet, looking for good recommendations, it is difficult enough to find them. The faces of modern feminism are “intersectional” without really being intersectional.

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Which is to say I am – and have been – slightly disheartened with this movement that I’ve loved for a long time. Because it’s easy to feel like it doesn’t necessarily have a space for me. This is probably why Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World took me by surprise. I had been hearing whispers of the book around social media. It certainly boasted some popular names. Amongst them Laverne Cox, Amandla Stenberg, and Malinda Lo – all names that I was familiar with. But I’ve grown weary, and these things disappoint me too easily these days.

But Here We Are didn’t start the conversation by saying, “we’re intersectional!” Instead, the introduction to the book reads “this is a movement about embracing differences and encouraging change that benefits all facets of society. This is a movement about listening as much as it is about speaking up.” And the book delivers. Collating the perspectives and experience of a wide variety of contributors, the book is both about speaking and listening – about our differences in experience. More than that, the book is about handing over the torch to those who have these different perspectives rather than speaking over them.

This is a movement about embracing differences and encouraging change that benefits all facets of society. This is a movement about listening as much as it is about speaking up

The book answers a number of feminism 101 issues – asking questions such as “is there a difference between sex and gender?” and “can women be sexist towards men?” It also provides some light-hearted feminist follow-ups with Kody Keplinger’s Feminist Songs To Sing Along To (which obviously includes Beyoncé’s Flawless) and Brenna Clarke Gray’s Six Great Comics by Women, about Women, For Everyone.

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The book is also multi-faceted in its medium. It doesn’t just stick to essays about feminism, or even fun listicles. It features Lily Myers brilliant poem Shrinking Women, artwork such as Intersectional Rosie the Riveter by Tyler Feder and Bad Hair Day by Stasia Burrington, and Wendy Xu’s comic strip, The Princess and the Witch.   

But the book also delves into heavier issues. In an interview with Laurie Halse Anderson and Courtney Summers, Kelly Jensen delves into stories of sexual assault and rape – and how far these kinds of stories have come since Anderson’s Speak, all the way to Summers’ All the Rage. In Amandla Stenberg’s Do Female Black Lives Matter Too? Stenberg speaks of eurocentric beauty standards and racist fetishism, claiming that “deeply ingrained into culture is the notion that black female bodies, at the intersect of oppression, are less than human and therefore unattractive. They are symbols of pain, trauma, and degradation.”

Deeply ingrained into culture is the notion that black female bodies, at the intersect of oppression, are less than human and therefore unattractive. They are symbols of pain, trauma, and degradation

Perhaps the essay that stayed with me the most was Feminism Is as Feminism Does by the sisters Mia and Michaela DePrince. Their story shows the many nuances within the feminist movement, the divergence of perspectives, and the different ways in which we can make a change in the world. Despite being sisters, Mia and Michaela have different approaches to feminism. Michaela, a famous ballerina, uses her influence to speak out against the practice of FGM. Mia, a singer/songwriter chooses to use her pen to influence change. She writes:

I use the power of the pen, the keys of my piano, and the strings of my guitar not only to send the message to women that they should embrace feminism, but to teach the men and boys whom they love to embrace but as well by advocating on behalf of women against violence and rape at home as well as in conflict.

Both sisters are advocates of feminism, but champion different causes and different methods to gain results.

Another essay that truly resonated with me was Kaye Mirza’s Faith and the Feminist, perhaps because Mirza’s words are a reflection of many of my own realities. Mirza speaks about how her faith is often used as a tool against her, used to suppress her voice. She writes:

Agency is one of my favourite words. Perhaps because, for so long, it was denied to me – not by my parents, who faithfully pruned weeds threatening to choke my voice, or by my community, who gave me reason to raise said voice with pride and dignity. When I claim my agency, I am claiming my authority over my mind, my body, what I choose to wear, how I choose to act and speak and feel and declaim as much and as frequently as I want.

Something that I – and I’m sure many other – Muslim women have to deal with on a daily basis. The struggle to speak for ourselves, to claim our own agency, while simultaneously being told to stay silent because we can’t possibly know what’s best for us when we choose to pursue our faith.

But Mirza’s essay is the exact reason why this book is imbued with so much importance. I wish this was a book that had existed when I was thirteen or fourteen, stepping into the feminist movement with bright eyes, eager to decry my own culture and peoples in order to swallow Western feminism whole. Not understanding that this kind of feminism has not carved out spaces for me, does not want to accept me, my experiences, and my nuances. It’s more interested in asking me to fit the mould.  

The pieces in Here We Are: Feminism For the Real World are responding to the need for more voices within the movement. It’s responding to this lack of space for women who don’t fit ‘the norm.’ It’s carving out the spaces within feminism that didn’t exist before, that we had to fight for. Like Kaye Mirza, I’ve had to fight against feminism my entire life, to find a space within it. I’ve had to fight against the idea that it was either feminism or my faith – and I still do. I have to fight against the idea that my existence is oppression, that my choices are under the thumb of patriarchy, while others’ are not.

But if this was a book I had read when I was thirteen, when I was bright-eyed for feminism, and willing to shed my identities for its enticing ideals, perhaps I would have found its space for me faster and easier. I wouldn’t have had to go through inner struggles, de-construct and re-construct aspects of my identity, battle with what I thought was a paradox of identities in order to believe in my equal rights.

The importance of books like this arises from this idea: that it is books that are engaging with our diversity of identities, embracing them, that’ll make us realise where we fit in and where we’re accepted. It’ll make us feel less alone, less alienated. Instead, we’ll rightfully slip into place within a feminism that is at once diverse and intersectional, eager to listen to our voices and perspectives because they’re valued contributions within the movement.

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