Reimagining Feminism on International Women's Day
By Harsha Walia /

Every morning I read my one-year-old daughter a fabulous children's alphabet book. When we get to the letter F, it goes "F is for Feminist, Fairness in our Pay." Of course a children's book is limited in its ability to express nuanced layers of analysis, but I often wonder about how relevant this articulation of a particular version of feminism will be for her.

Dominant liberal feminism has typically sought equal and fair rights for women. Even subsequent waves that brought greater representation of diverse women and trans people within these same frameworks of feminism have rarely altered the premise of "equality" as the primary organizing force of feminism, thus leaving the relationship of heteropatriarchy to other social, economic and political structures of power largely unquestioned. Patriarchy is not secondary to capitalism and imperialism; the very foundations of capitalism, colonialism and state violence are structured in conjunction with and through patriarchy. Marginalized women, therefore, not only endure gendered violence at higher rates, we also experience it qualitatively differently.

Feminism: Friend or foe of the state?

The past decade has seen a surge of debate on feminist anti-violence strategies that rely on the state. Anti-violence strategies, such as tougher sentencing laws and increased policing, have been criticized for emboldening criminalization that already disproportionately targets communities of colour, poor communities, and trans folks.

It is clear that the state is not interested in protecting women who defend themselves against heteropatriarchal and transphobic violence, as evidenced most recently in the cases of Marissa Alexander and CeCe McDonald, both Black women who were incarcerated for defending themselves against partner violence and transphobic violence, respectively. A fact sheet on battered women in U.S. prisons details that as many as 90 per cent of the women in jail today for killing men were battered by those men.

Battered women in prison are part of a broader trend of incarcerating Indigenous and Black women, women who are street-involved, sex workers, trans women, and migrant women. The incarceration of Black women in the U.S increased by 828 per cent over five years. In Canada, the representation of Indigenous women in prison has increased by nearly 90 per cent over the past decade. For migrant and non-status women, reporting sexual abuse often leads to deportation, and Canada has recently introduced a policy of conditional permanent residency that further entrenches the vulnerability of migrant women. This criminalization, incarceration and deportation of women and trans people is gender violence perpetrated by the state.

Feminism: A challenge to or in the service of imperialism?

At the global level, Western feminism has been complicit in racialized empire. Despite the fact that military occupations wreak havoc in the lives of women and children and the documentation of rape as a primary tool of war, many feminist organizations support imperialist interventions. From earlier "yellow peril" myths that warned of migrant Asian men ensnaring white women with opium to the more contemporary justifications of the occupation of Afghanistan as a mission to liberate Muslim women, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak portrays the cheerleading of civilizing crusades masked as feminist solidarity as "white men saving brown women from brown men."

Liberal feminism is a handmaiden to cultural imperialism, essentializing communities of colour as innately barbaric. Women and queers are supposedly devoid of any agency -- forced to veil, subjected to honour killings, coerced into arranged marriages. In the post-9/11 context, cultural imperialism is evident in debates about gender and Islam that force a singular feminism -- secular, sexually expressive, and liberal autonomist -- on women and queers of colour. Laws banning the niqab, for example, target Muslim women for public scrutiny, hate crimes, and state surveillance. Writing about the architecture of feminisms in the service of imperialism, Leila Ahmed charges, "Whether in the hands of patriarchal men or feminists, the ideas of western feminism essentially functioned to morally justify the attack on native societies and to support the notion of the comprehensive superiority of Europe."

Colonial gendered violence: Land is Life

Given that Indigenous women suffer the highest rates of sexual violence, combatting gender violence requires a commitment to dismantling settler-colonialism. Nearly 1,200 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada over the past 30 years. As renowned Indigenous feminist Lee Maracle writes, "It is not simply about 'ending violence,' the violation is the colonial order."

Gendered violence is embedded within settler-colonialism: in racist and heteropatriarchal laws such as the Indian Act, in policies of child apprehension, in the practices of locking up Indigenous women and youth at alarming rates, and in the genocidal attempts to annihilate Indigenous laws through the very bodies of Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirit people that embody and enact Indigenous sovereignty. In particular, the systemic ideology that upholds the colonial entitlement to and pillage of Indigenous lands is furthered by the colonial construction of Indigenous women as sexually available. As a Manitoba judge stated during the inquiry into the death of 19-year-old Helen Betty Osborne: "the men who abducted Osborne believed that young aboriginal women were objects with no human value beyond sexual gratification."

Settler-colonialism is founded on the violences of lack of free, prior and informed consent: the "rape-ability" of Indigenous women's bodies is intricately connected to the "rape-ability," theft, and exploitation of Indigenous lands.

Climbing up the ladder on migrant women's backs

A frequently touted success of the liberal feminist movement has been the entry of women into the paid workforce. However, migrant women performing domestic labour have actually facilitated the entry of these women into the wage economy.

In Canada, the Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP) brings predominately Filipina migrant workers to work as domestic workers for middle-class and rich households. Given their temporary status, they are a vulnerable workforce and constantly subjected to labour and human rights violations including unpaid or excessive work hours, additional job responsibilities, confiscation of travel documents, disrespect of their privacy, and sexual assault. As one migrant domestic worker remarks, "We know that, under the LCP, we are like modern slaves who have to wait for at least two years to get our freedom." Freedom for some women is, therefore, reliant on the unfree indentured labour of other women.

Reproductive justice and emotional labour: Beyond the wage economy

Women are more likely to be stratified into low-wage work, particularly sectors such as retail, social services, janitorial, food service, clerical work, teaching, child care, domestic work, and nursing. These sectors are undervalued and underpaid precisely because they mirror (and reproduce) the gendered division of labour that typically occurs within the home. As Andrea Smith writes, "Patriarchy is the logic that naturalizes social hierarchy."

Capitalism not only creates the conditions for wage theft and precarious labour but -- through patriarchy as a mutually reinforcing process -- it also defines what can even be characterized as labour and ties human worth to wage-labour productivity.

Single mothers become marginalized as "unemployed" and "uncontributing" when they are in fact, as scholar Silvia Frederici observes, reproducing labour power as a key source of capitalist accumulation. Because reproductive labour has been naturalized as women's unpaid work, it has provided an immense subsidy to capitalism. According to figures by economist Raj Patel in The Value of Nothing, women's unpaid work is estimated at $11-$15 trillion, which is more than half the world's entire economic output!

Reproductive justice movements, therefore, challenge the assumption that the only valuable labour is that which can be commodified and sold on the market. The greatest transformative potentials of feminism lie in the valuing of relational work that sustains our communities and manifests our responsibilities to each other: care work, land stewardship, and emotional labour. By rejecting the dominant model of competition, domination, commodification, and isolation, these forms of labour inherently challenge male, cisgendered, ableist and capitalist supremacy.

Multitude of feminisms

Rather than a feminism that strengthens racism, imperialism, and economic subjugation, feminism is most relevant in its subversion of the state, capital interests, gendered relations, and the policing of gender and sexual binaries. By challenging the ideologies of superiority and uniformity that underlie the dominant liberal framing of feminism, embracing amultitude of feminisms would diversify our understandings of how coercion and oppression is experienced, as well as resisted. It is no coincidence that the Idle No More movement is credited to four women, that three Black women founded the Black Lives Matter project, and that women in Kobane and Chiapas and Palestine and Chhattisgarh are leading those struggles for liberation.

Some days I alter my reading of Avnika's alphabet book to "F is for Feminists, Freedom Fighters Against All Violence."

Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories. She has been involved in community-based grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous solidarity, anti-capitalist, Palestinian liberation, and anti-imperialist movements for over a decade. The column, "Exception to the Rule," is about challenging norms, carving space and centring the dispossessed.

Photo: Eva the Weaver/flickr

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Reimagining Feminism on International Women's Day