Our latest edition is out in print and online this month. Subscribe today and start reading.

Reject Imperial Feminism

From suffragette jingoism in 1914 to the liberal support for the war in Afghanistan, a long tradition of feminists has made excuses for Western imperialism. But women’s liberation demands that we break up established power structures — and start by focusing on the women who most suffer the effects of imperial violence.

Theresa May gives a statement announcing her resignation, on May 24, 2019. She was the architect of policies especially harmful for women. (UK Government)

The year 2020 is one of pauses, solitude, and hibernation — but also a surge of solidarity. From climate strikes to the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, this is a truly revolutionary moment, divided between the vacuum of living amid a pandemic and the mobilizations for a future now in the making.

In this context, Lola Olufemi’s new book is both a timely and stirring intervention. Feminism, Interrupted expresses the radical voices which are coming into feminism from the solidarity work taking place on the ground. It both unravels a silenced history of radicalism — and points toward a truly just future.

The relationship between feminism and political radicalism is both necessary and complex. Feminism, Olufemi persuasively shows, does not have necessarily radical tendencies — rather, there is a long history of women giving their support to oppressive systems under the guise of “feminism.” Take the white suffragettes who did not see colonial subjects as part of their struggle for a vote (and even cheered on British imperialist forces). Or take the British home secretary Theresa May, who was the architect of policies especially harmful for women, even as she sported a “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt made by underpaid laborers.

Lending itself to societies organized around racist, patriarchal, and capitalist states, this kind of feminism can create great harm to the most vulnerable. Olufemi’s book thus forcefully seeks to interrupt exactly those tendencies in feminism which aim merely to tweak the present. She covers an impressive array of topics, from food politics (showing the connections interlinking racism, class politics, food poverty, and body shaming) to an inspiring discussion of the politically radical potential of art. With her concise and sensitive approach, Olufemi artfully pinpoints the blind spots of white feminism. But more than that, she points to the vast potential of a broader and more radical conception of feminism, which could provide it with a vision for a genuinely inclusive future.

Olufemi’s book is global in outlook, but works from a British point of view, amplifying this country’s silenced history of black feminist writing. The history of women of color and black women in the UK is linked in histories of colonialism, poverty, and nationalism, experienced as a multifaceted oppression. The strength of Olufemi’s work lies in both explaining how feminism is a disruptive force — and also where its own assumptions ought to be disrupted.

The Sexist State

Olufemi starts from looking at “the sexist state” and its use of austerity and state violence. Here, she maintains a decisive focus on British cases — avoiding the all-too-common tendency for discussions of racist police violence to end up deflecting attention to the United States alone. The incarceration of asylum seekers in institutions such as Yarl’s Wood detention center is a crucial focus, here: feminist struggles which focus on citizenship-based rights neglect the fact that some of the most vulnerable women, most in need of solidarity, are denied access to those very rights. This demands an overhaul of a state system whose own structures perpetuate patriarchal violence.

In a particularly thought-provoking and vital intervention, Olufemi shifts the discussion from reproductive rights (which are based, she shows persuasively, in a history of repression of women of color and use of eugenicist discourse to oppress them) to thinking about reproductive justice as an overarching system, in which women’s sexuality is seen as part of transformed liberation politics. This is a crucial intervention; when marches from Poland to Argentina and Ireland demand reconsideration of women’s ability to control their reproduction, it is vital that we think carefully about our demands and their relationship to the law.

As Olufemi insists, “As feminists, we must continue breaking the law to provide abortions and associated medications on demand to live the lives we deserve. Those who have been cast outside of ‘acceptable’ face of abortion rights should be at the center of our demands.” True radicalism cannot arise from tweaks within existing legal frameworks that continue to oppress the most vulnerable; rather, we must overhaul those systems to unravel a new imaginary, in which all are free and equal.

In a much-needed intervention against transmisogyny, Olufemi challenges hegemonic discourses that continue to repress and exclude. She shows alliances between far-right organizations, especially in the United States, and trans-exclusionary radical feminists, as well as pointing out crucial links between the exclusion of trans women from feminism and other forces of oppression such as racism. As she puts it, “There are ideological links between biological essentialism and scientific racism; both see the body in absolute terms.”

Indeed, such an obsession with reproductive organs as absolute determinants of sex has strong conceptual links to the question, “where are you really from?” Such a line of interrogation is familiar to all women of color, black women, Muslim women, and others historically cast out by mainstream white British feminism. Both assume a “true,” consistent, and deterministic human essence, to which our human identity can be stripped down. As Olufemi argues forcefully, this has the effect that trans women are falsely represented by transphobic discourse as a cohesive group — ironically, by the same women who aim to break the stereotype of what it means to be a woman. For Olufemi, feminism must be radical and inclusive. Tackling the issue of trans rights is thus essential in being able to imagine a truly emancipatory future.

Abolition

In this same vein, Olufemi’s much-needed focus on Islamophobia and the white savior complex within feminism gives her argument a truly internationalist framework. Here, she connects the military attacks waged in the name of “war on terror and for women’s rights” which ruined the lives of millions and bore a heavy price on Muslim women around the world. She also confronts the idea of “white working-class girls” as the most vulnerable group —  a notion that has served as a recruitment tool for the far right, internationally. In this discourse, “radicalization” is seen as a process undergone only by people of color and specifically Muslim women.

A much-needed layer to Olufemi’s argument comes from Muslim feminists themselves; “we can begin to formulate a strategic response to the way that the state and global powers attempt to regulate and diminish Muslim life. This starts by reconsidering everything we think we know about Muslim women.” Emancipation will only come from the oppressed themselves. If feminism wishes to overcome racist, patriarchal capitalism, it must listen to the women paying a hefty price for its enduring hegemony, rather than those who would impose predetermined solutions upon them.

In another timely facet of the book, Olufemi challenges attitude to prisons — and advances arguments for their abolition. Following in the footsteps of such luminaries and pioneers as Angela Davis, Ruth Gilmore, and Gina Dent, Olufemi argues that “the history of prisons is inseparable from the history of the British colonial endeavor.”

Linking struggles such as protecting sex workers (rather than opting for the Nordic model, which essentially reduces sex workers’ livelihood while not providing women with enough protection against sexual abuse) and overarching abolition feminism, the idea that imprisonment of buyers of prostitution can improve the lives of sex workers is intimately related to two assumptions: that punishment, and especially incarceration, can be a force for change, and that punishing offenders helps the complainant. As Olufemi forcefully demonstrates, in many instances there would actually be higher stakes for sex workers themselves if they called the police — meaning that they will abstain from doing so.

Olufemi moves away from conversations in which incarceration is seen as a response to structural wrongs and shows that locking up sex offenders is a temporary and superficial response to sexual violence, ignoring its real impact. Rather, abolitionist feminism “asks us to identify the areas where our communities are sick and suffering and to propose solutions that do not involve detention, restriction, sectioning, policing. It asks us not to call 999 on someone who is vulnerable and could be helped in another way and recognizes that prisons merely wrap dirty gauze around dirty wounds; they reinfect our society every moment they stay open.”

This is a crucial point in the argument that crystalizes Olufemi’s consistent flow of writing. Steeped in empathy, never wavering in her integrity, she crucially asks us to imagine a life that we do not currently know — not to pause on temporary solutions, but to demand justice for all.

Beyond Incremental Progress

Passionate and coherent, Feminism, Interrupted convinces the reader that feminism can, indeed, be an “interruptive” route toward justice. But to be able to work toward this path and unravel its imaginaries we must interrupt contemporary feminism, which so often provides half-solutions which are themselves steeped in injustice. But there are vast resources to interrupt those oppressive structures, within black feminism and histories of radicalism which have historically been silenced. Feminism must be interrupted — but it also includes forces that would allow us to interrupt the present state of things, if we dared to listen to it more carefully.

Olufemi’s book is a brave manifesto. There is a lot at stake in asking us to dismantle our current systems and overhaul them completely. And women who have benefited from these oppressive systems by being allowed an inch of hegemony will not give up without a fight. The commonplace idea of “waves” of feminism may give a misleading picture of incremental achievements, inch by inch, stride by stride — allowing us to tell ourselves comfortable stories about progress. However, these histories are built on colonial, racist, capitalist narratives that leave patriarchy intact while excluding many women. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of white feminism is that, by subscribing to a limited struggle, women lose out on a prospect of overarching liberation which would benefit us all.

And so, in this turbulent time of shifting between quiet isolation and public uproar, Feminism, Interrupted is a much-needed radical voice. It is rare to read a book that hits home and punches you in the gut on so many levels. Feminism, Interrupted explores urgent issues in a lucid, impassioned, provocative way. Nearing the end of Olufemi’s book, it is hard not to feel, viscerally, that another world is indeed possible.