Moving Beyond Conflict in the Feminist Movement

by Chitra Nagarajan

The current conflict over diversity and inclusion in the UK feminist movement creates an opportunity to make our movement stronger

First published: 26 January, 2014 | Category: Activism, Disability, Gender equality, Homophobia, Inequality, Labour movement, Racism

The past twelve months have been a tough and exhilarating time to be a (black) feminist activist in the UK. We have seen issues around race, disability and gender identity in particular placed at the heart of feminist debate in a way that has not happened during the memory of those of my generation. We have long been asserting there will not be a women’s liberation that is meaningful to all women without simultaneous end of structural racism, homophobia, heteronormativity, ablism in all its form, class oppression, neo-colonialism and global power structures, transphobia and transmisogyny.

This analysis has not been limited to black feminists. Indeed, the importance of working towards a linked liberation, where the achievement of one ‘set of’ rights is conditioned and incomplete without the achievement of all others has been long discussed within many activist movements for decades. Constantly raising and pushing this has been met with some success, with anti-racist, socialist and other movements having significantly expanded their frame of organising to include the experiences and realities of women. This often is not accompanied with a deeper understanding of patriarchy and how it combines with other forms of oppression and marginalisation or with recognition that marginalisation can come from within families, communities and movements as well as without. At the same time, the (dominant) feminist movement has made substantial progress and, at the very least, frequently makes conscious efforts to ensure it reflects the truths of all women. Campaigning against policies that trap immigrant women in abusive relationships is one of the many examples of black and white women working together. The struggle against religious fundamentalisms and their specific impact on women’s rights and freedoms is another.

Progress has been limited however. Most activists seem not to see the rise of the faith agenda, as witnessed by the increasing number of faith-based schools and funding of faith based organisations to assist women who have experienced violence which use methods such as mediation to ‘solve’ domestic violence, as a core concern. There is little campaigning by wider movements on issues of reform of the immigration and asylum systems. The struggle for LGBT rights has remained overwhelmingly focused on issues of marriage and adoption, neglecting the poverty experienced by many LGBT people who are also black, disabled and working class.

Limited shift by those for mobilise for social justice in recognising the interconnectedness of all movements is echoed in the feminist movement. All of this continues to cause conflict as women who are further marginalised by dominant structures of power and hierarchy struggle for their needs, realities and priorities to be taken seriously by others in a movement they want to believe is also theirs. These tensions are neither new nor inherently bad. After all conflict and challenge has great potential for renewal and dynamism. What matters is how we respond to it. Ways of current engagement and the anger, confusion and pain recent debates have caused has led to many within the movement feeling frustrated and disengaged.

We need to step back and reassess where we are as a movement and how we relate with each other.

Feminist drama in recent times

Discussion that was mostly conducted in private circles previously has come to the fore in the past year in very public ways. This has been most evident in feminist circles. This is not because, as some so-called progressive men put it, women are ‘naturally bitchy’ when put together. After all, these debates and tensions find echoes in every single movement around the world – feminist or not. Rather, it may well be because the feminist movement is actually more open to discussion and challenge than any other.

The whole topography of debates and the details of who said what to whom are, to an extent, less important than the pattern that events take which we see repeating. Something happens, typically someone writing something seen by others as problematic. In recent times, public and mainstream debate has centred on race, disability or gender identity but class, homophobia and ways in which heterosexuality is seen as the norm have also been sources of contention.  People think and talk with each other and then someone or a number of people, usually through a blog post or Twitter, point this out to the person concerned. Cue discussion played out in the public through articles, blogposts and tweets. What started out on a person-to-person level quickly turns into different groups coalescing in public and private fora. Often this is also accompanied by reflection, attempts at real engagement and a public and acknowledged shift in thinking.  However, more often than this, what we have seen is two groups solidifying (with the rest not wanting to engage or not feeling able to voice their thoughts) and the conflict between them intensifying with every single subsequent incident that occurs. The next time something happens, the reaction and ensuing polarisation becomes greater, the result of a cumulative effect of memories from all previous engagements. Simultaneously, accusations of online bullying, often ironically emanating from those who are being challenged and whom have the power and influence in both online and offline circles, appear. This has had the effect of making people feel uncomfortable to continue to raise these issues, with the result that the little engagement with each other that was occurring before completely halts.

Most of those involved feel increasingly embattled and under siege leading to entrenchment of positions into which people are locked in by shared loyalty, friendship and common political purpose. This gives rise to a culture of (self) silencing whereby scope for internal dialogue within sister circles of friendship and activism feels increasingly restricted. There is immense pressure to ‘hold the line’ and it feels like any attempt to question is a betrayal. Not being sure and groping your way to a more nuanced position is intensely uncomfortable. It is far easier for the rhetoric to escalate on all sides with an accompanying forgetting of the humanity of others and reduced reaching out to engage in dialogue in an attempt to build a shared understanding. 

Of course, none of this is new. Audre Lorde in her 1984 letter to Mary Daly hoped that ‘to assume that you will not hear me represents not only history, perhaps, but an old pattern of relating, sometimes protective and sometimes dysfunctional, which we, as women shaping our future, are in the process of shattering and passing beyond.’ She wrote this at a time when many engaged in current debates were either learning to talk or had yet to be born. From my own involvement in feminist circles in London for the past few years, I know there have been continuous discussions about diversity and the feminist movement among black feminists, but the true nature and scale of this has not reached others until relatively recently.

What is different about this decade of the new millennia is the possibility of having your critique reach the person concerned directly through blogging and social media in new and more immediate ways that have previously never been seen. This is not a new discussion; it just happens to be the first time that a large section of the feminist movement have had it brought directly to their attention, in ways that implicate their own behaviour.

Conflict theory and its application to activist movements

For over five years, I have been working to build peace and realise human rights in areas affected by violent conflict, mostly in West Africa. It may seem a bit dramatic to say that I see resonances between my work and what I have experienced in UK based activist movements. Of course, fighting between and human rights abuses committed by government and JAS forces, between farmers and herders over land and water use, or over environmental degradation and human rights abuses caused by oil spills and gas flares in Nigeria where I now live, is completely different to what takes place between feminists in the UK. However, there are so many similarities when it comes to cycles of conflict and ways of (non) engagement. I was facilitating peacebuilding training recently and found my mind drifting to reframe my movement experiences using the frameworks I was discussing. 

Conflict is not just state armies fighting with each other or civil war but rather a human phenomenon that we all experience in our daily lives and which manifests in different ways. Broadly speaking, there are four types of conflict. Intra-personal conflict occurs within a person, for example between ‘should’ and ‘want’ or when deciding whether to take a new job. Inter-personal conflict happens between two people, for example between people in a relationship or friendship. Intra-group conflict takes place within a group or community, for example between different strands of a political party. Inter-group conflict is between different groups or communities, for example between Manchester United and Manchester City supporters. When viewed in this light, the applicability of conflict theory to inter and intra movement tensions becomes clear.

Conflict takes place in different stages. It is often latent, sparked off by a particular event into emergence and escalation then stalemate before there is de-escalation or negotiation and a move into sustainable peace. Progression is not linear. The situation can and does shift back and forth between the stages and the curve is not followed in a smooth line from start to finish. Conflict can remain stuck at stalemate, escalation or de-escalation. If its root causes are properly addressed, the process can also be short-circuited, for example from conflict emergence into dispute settlement and sustainable peace. Dispute settlement may also not be effective at addressing root causes so that sustainable peace is not achieved but rather, conflict becomes latent, ready to be triggered.

This image is taken from here.

Perceptions and experiences also impact at which stage you find yourself. What has surprised me is the number of people who are coming across these issues and thinking for the first time as a result of what has been taking place. They have been unaware of the many of us that have been fatigued with the broader movement for a while now and stuck in stalemate. We move back and forth between engaging, because we feel we must to change the movement for the better and due to the strength of our belief in a united struggle for gender equality, and not engaging, because we just cannot bear it any more and we cannot see that we are making any difference. Our engagement sometimes leaves us feeling energised and positive about making connections but often the result is for us to feel even more frustrated, angry and upset than before. If you read many feminist texts (especially those written by black, trans, immigrant, asylum seeking, disabled and/ or lesbian feminist writers), you find that this is a recurring cycle that has been perpetuated across the decades, generations and centuries and is intensely predictable.

One of the root causes of most conflicts is exclusion and marginalisation. This is as true for the feminist movement as it is for countries where power is shared unequally between different communities and groups. In order to address conflict within the feminist movement and become stronger, we must examine, address and redress power, exclusion and marginalisation. This reflection and action must be ongoing otherwise the same issues and tensions are likely to arise again and again, as they have been doing. Genuine and sustainble peace is not self-perpetuating but rather requires substantial work by current and future generations to continue to address the root causes of conflict. After all, these are based in the very structures of power and oppression that we as activists are committed to dismantling.

Reconfiguring ways of thinking and working

Conflict is not bad. It is a sign that underlying issues are rising to the fore and is a way of ensuring dynamism and change. I am so pleased that issues of diversity and the feminist movement are being discussed and debated in the mainstream as well as within self-defined groups and amongst those with relative power. The conversation being had is a prime opportunity to spark thinking for the first time and gain more allies.

What I am profoundly disappointed about is the ways in which it is (not) being addressed.

Peace is more than just the absence of conflict, as noted by different linguistic and cultural traditions. The Bantu philosophy of ubuntu, the Sanskrit shanti, the Arabic salaam, the Hebrew shalom and the Hausa lafiya all take a much more holistic approach. As Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize winning women’s rights and peace activist, says "I am what I am because of who we all are."

This comes from the idea that the self has little meaning in isolation. Individualism is important, especially for the realisation of particular human rights. I certainly do not believe that one should sacrifice themselves for the happiness of the whole. After all, this idea is mostly directed against women (and young men) to coerce them into acting in ways posited beneficial to the family or community, usually as decided by (older) men, such as to force marriage based on family interests.

However, focus on the individual by itself, with its roots in Western neo-liberal thinking, does not capture the whole nature of human existence. Movements should be about building community and working to achieve both individual and collective rights and address hierarchies of power and difference. We need to remember and see structural oppression and ways of collective organising and resisting to overthrow this. This dichotomy goes to the heart of what the recent drama/ arguments/ debates have been about, both in terms of failure to look at structural oppression, in which you may also be implicated, and in terms of whom and which groups those involved see as forming their community. This is also important to bear in mind when thinking of ways of working and resolving difference.

Desmond Tutu wrote that ‘When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate. If the world had more ubuntu, we would not have war. We would not have this huge gap between the rich and the poor.’ In conversations around diversity, inclusion and feminism, there has been little reaching out, affirming of others or attempt to redress the balance between the powerful and the weak. The response to critique has often been an immediate defensiveness accompanied by very little (public) self-reflection and counter-attack. On the flipside, I have seen instances where people have genuinely sought to engage in the debate and acknowledged they have made mistakes, only to continue to be attacked.

Reluctance to believe in the genuineness of someone else’s engagement should be understood in the light of all the experiences of people who engage and then act in ways that show it was to showcase their diversity and inclusiveness without changing anything fundamental. A feminist event with no attempts to ensure accessibility, just weeks after the organisation’s website ran a piece talking about the lack of access for deaf women in feminist spaces, springs to mind.

All of this is difficult. We have been conditioned to internalise and perpetuate the (to expand on bell hooks’s term) white supremacist capitalist heteronormative cisnormative ablist neo-colonialist patriarchy. (There are lots of big concepts and academic type words there but I shall trust in your ability to google.) Trying to see through just one of those components in isolation takes years. Trying to figure out and unpick how all of these fit together in mutually reinforcing ways is the process of many lifetimes. We cannot expect people (including ourselves) to ‘get it right’ every time. What we must expect is openness to appraisal, willingness to reflect, generosity to reach out in the spirit of meaningful engagement and grace to acknowledge mistakes. We need to engage with each other in the spirit of ubuntu.

Organising on the basis of shared identities is crucial. I cherish and value the existence of and my experiences in black women only feminist spaces. I have gained much of my strength and political analysis through engaging with other women who have shared experiences. However this has not been without challenge, as even with such groups there are often particular areas, experiences or political analyses that are not adequately recognised. Do we look towards splitting ourselves in smaller and smaller identity based groups to reflect the full spectrum of ourselves and our politics?

There is an obvious need and room for this. Groups such as the Lesbian Immigration Support Group, which recently prevented the deportation of lesbian Nadine Ketchakwe to Cameroon, are evidence of the importance of autonomous spaces where women have the opportunity to ‘be themselves with other lesbian and bisexual asylum seekers, refugees and supporters’ as well as provide each other with support. However, as June Jordan points out, ‘it's probably not enough. It may be enough to get started on something but I doubt very much whether it's enough to get anything finished.’  Indeed LISG reached out to its supporters and allies to campaign on Nadine’s behalf and it was a court order won by her lawyer that halted the deportation.

I believe in a type of organising that recognises multiple axes and hierarchies of power and difference and reaches out across them. My faith in this form of organising has been borne out again and again thanks to my wonderful activist-friends who are not only open to questioning and critique but also constantly push me to challenge and expand my own thinking.

Of course, this often leads to black feminists (and women from further marginalised groups) having to do most of the work and movement, often with little benefit. With others, I recently organised an event bringing black and white women together to look at some of these issues. It felt like a necessary discussion to have. At least half the white women who took part told me afterwards about how much they had learned and how it had completely transformed their thinking. Amongst many of the black women however, there was a prevailing sense that it had taken a lot emotionally for us to be there and we had had to publicly speak about painful experiences so that others could learn, without getting much out of the experience ourselves.

Somehow we need to come to a place where all parties recognise and address all inequalities and power imbalances and weave this understanding throughout their activism. We need to do this collaboratively with genuine desire and humility to learn from each other, being proactive without relying on others to teach and in the spirit of working out our differences. I like to think of this as a rights based peacebuilding approach that recognises that there is not a level playing field between all parties. Just as achieving real, sustainable peace, is difficult, requires continuous work and is subject to setbacks, nevertheless it is possible as long as those engaged are willing to talk and listen and think and change.


Chitra Nagarajan is a co-editor at New Left Project. She is an activist who has worked to promote and protect human rights, particularly those of women, in China, the United Kingdom, the United States and West Africa. She currently works to build peace in Nigeria.

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