When the blog gave out tickets to attend the panel discussion on Slutwalks held by the OBA Feminist Legal Analysis/Young Lawyers Section, I asked for contributions to the blog to fill out the story. This one comes to us from Sonia Nijjar, a first year student at Osgoode Hall Law School who based her decision to study law on the last (and best) political science class she ever took, “Gender and Public Policy,” and one influential professor at the University of Alberta. She is a self-proclaimed “minority within a minority, within a minority:” an Indo-Canadian, creative nonfiction writer, and feminist (who is also Tina Fey’s biggest fan).
The Slutwalks panel hosted by the OBA on Thursday, November 3rd has no doubt been on my mind for the last couple of days. Trying to think of what to post (seeing as how the tweeters did such a good job describing the event and discussion) I found myself reconciling my position as a person with political feminist beliefs, in relation to those views of feminism represented on Thursday night.. I have a specific understanding about what is an effective, critical, and progressive public discourse. I’m also sensitive to these issues, because I identify as a minority within a minority within a minority (I’m an Albertan, Indo-Canadian feminist). I’m used to qualifying and providing a very clear framework for every single social, cultural, and political belief or view that I dare to represent publicly. And when I say publicly, I mean with anyone beyond my friends who share similar views.
My young and evolving feminism is firmly rooted in a belief that (pretty much) every discourse, particularly in a pubic space, cannot assume that our ideas of our feminism(s) are the same. I’m not talking about second and third wave struggle or sex wars—both issues were raised on Thursday night. I’m talking about the fact that the various feminism(s) in the room were implicitly and explicitly (you’ll see as I describe how the questions/comments from audience went) trying to occupy the same space. Which is great, don’t get me wrong. My issue is that for the purpose of this kind of discourse, it would have been useful to have been provided with a framework for the kinds of feminisms we were dealing with on the panel; one that goes beyond categorical distinctions. That is to say, operationally, what were each of the panelists suggesting about their feminism in relation to Slutwalks, implicitly (or explicitly, in the case of Brenda Cossman at least)? I want to explain why this would be important in the context of what was discussed on Thursday night. So I’ll start first with brief references to the panelists and their primary contributions in starting the discussion, and then with a couple of references to the types of (very insightful and diverse) questions/comments from the audience.
1) Sonya implicitly referring to her emerging feminism which resulted in Slutwalks being about responding to the real fact that women are not equally protected under supposedly equal services;
2) Brenda Cossman viewing the movement through the lens of the sex wars;
3) Karin Galldin speaking about the legal implications as a feminist practitioner; and
4) Shelly Quinn raising issues about the inaccessibility of the message underlying Slutwalks for some second-wavers.
(Side note: My impression of the evening was that although everyone on the panel seemed to agree that Slutwalk is a positive step forward in “our” feminist agenda, there was an explicit recognition that some feminists don’t think so. It’s too bad that those feminists weren’t represented on the panel—which was a significant issue for a colleague of mine who attended the talk. There were no women of color on the panel).
1. I sat close to a group of women who, in the context of the event, identified as “women of color.” I should note that I usually always identify as a woman of color, since I’m not white… but because I’m also not Black, I felt that the discussion on Thursday night was trying to tell me I’m closer to a white woman than a woman of colour. Which makes me angry, but is a complexity of its own, worthy of another billion blog posts.
From the way they were shifting in their chairs, some of these women had something to say. A couple of times somebody from this group would stand up to the microphone and emphasize that although they identified as being feminist, they were often unrepresented by the discussions (like this one) that took place, dealing with feminist issues.
Although these women were diplomatic, eloquent, expressive—there was an implicit frustration in their comments, in their tones and voices. Their feminist identities were in conflict with the identities represented on the panel, but they could not expressly identify the struggle. Yes, “victim blaming” is also an issue for women of color, and yes, the panel did in fact recognize that. But there was an added complexity—these women were not saying “I am not the same as you.” Instead, they were expressing that “my feminism is not the same as yours.” What was the difference? What did it mean? The women on the panel mostly responded with comments suggesting that they understood the frustrations of unrepresentative issues—that, for example, the issues behind SlutWalks, and the movement itself, posed a different challenge for women of color. The panel recognized that those differences existed, but failed to engage with what that meant for the women in that room, for feminism, and for the movement itself. I felt unsatisfied with that—and by the way the women around me were whispering, sighing, and looking at one another, my feelings were shared.
2. There was an insightful comment from two women in particular who expressed frustrations of categorical feminisms in light of this kind of discourse. One suggested that “we don’t know who the second-wavers are,” and the other suggested that “operational definitions, rather than labeled categories” could be much more effective. I should give credit to this second speaker who was not only impressively eloquent, but also gave me a lot to think about.
Here’s the thing. I get it—because I am a third-waver, I can identify with the whole “feminism is the water” ideal. [ed note, see the contention in Manifesta (2000): "The presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice we have it—it's simply in the water."] But I also, perhaps more obviously, understand that feminism in itself is a site of struggle. Maybe one could reasonably assume that people coming or listening in on a discussion about Slutwalks “understand feminism.” But herein lies the problem. Our feminism(s) are necessarily varied. Had we been given an operational framework of the feminism(s) represented on the panel, I am confident the discussion would have been enriched. Instead of what really felt like a competition to occupy a feminist space with what seemed to be (but probably weren’t) competing feminist identities, we could have engaged with the issue as it related to a mutually acknowledged framework—regardless of if all our feminism(s) fit within it.
I’d like to propose a shared framework of the feminism(s) that I’m confident were represented on the panel that night:
‘Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression’
-bell hooks (source, at 6)