Our Sisters’ Feminisms by Xochitl Alvizo


 We live in a very small and connected world that at the same time is a very large and disparate one. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by all the news available of the things that occur all over the world, to which I have such quick and easy access online. It makes everything feel so close and connected. At the same time, I also experience a huge disconnect between my very particular and local context and that of others around the globe; women whose reality and life experience I know little about. Even as news about them flash before my eyes, it’s not possible to reduce them to those brief flashes of information or claim to know something substantive about them. In reality, how much am I even able to say about the woman who lives across the street from me, much less women who I only know about online? And yet, my feminism compels me to call them my sisters.

Feminism compels me to see another woman’s well-being as inextricably tied to my own. But how can the feminism called forth by my particular and limited context and experience connect to women not in my immediate context? How do I engage my disparate sister with the feminism from my own world and relate it to hers?

One of my growing convictions is that we cannot enact feminism from afar. We cannot practice feminism outside the reality of actual women’s lives. There are all kinds of realities in the world, and rightly so, there are all kinds of feminisms in the world as well. Feminisms need to be enacted in the unique and creative ways that are born from the inspiration of the women who are directly affected – the women whose lives are on the line. It doesn’t mean we can’t join and support one another across contexts, but we must do so in true partnership, as sisters of equal regard who honor one another’s dignity, agency, and full human capacity.

Saba Mahmood, a feminist scholar, rightly points out that there is no “singularity of vision that unites us [feminists].” In her book, Politics of Piety, Professor Mahmood states that the feminist project must continue to be “productively open” for “the ability to effect change in the world and in oneself is historically and culturally specific” (p.14-15). It is so true – there is no one way of being feminist – we even see it among the feminists on this blog and their very different ways of enacting feminism. The reality is that we live in a world that even as small as it sometimes feels it is still a very large and diverse place and it requires a vast diversity of feminist social action if we are to effect change within it, which I believe we must do. To not work for change is to settle for what already is and the world as it currently exists is systematically broken; it privileges some at the great expense of others.

Whether it be women from a religion not our own, women from patriarchal religions, women of different race, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds, or of different social-economic realities, we must not deny women’s right to name and enact feminism for themselves. To belittle or discount the forms that agency and empowerment take for other women effectively denies their dignity and subjectivity. The world already does this to women all day long – we don’t need to fall into these same patterns. On the contrary, feminist social action is a call to disrupt, resist, and transform these oppressive social patterns and help create new ones.

Feminists who participate in spaces of diversity, like this one, must reflectively consider the manner in which they will engage one another across these differences. Will we uphold each other’s right to effect feminist change in our respective parts of the world – even when the enactment falls outside of what we ourselves would choose or envision? Are we willing to recognize that all of our different choices are particular, contextual, and historically located? Are we able to bring our honest and personal perspectives to one another with openness and vulnerability, hoping that we’ll both receive something from the encounter to which we wouldn’t otherwise have access?

Our empowerment and well-being truly is tied to each other’s. So as we each do our part to “take our own place in the sun,” let’s not guffaw because we think our sisters’ steps are too small; instead let’s shout, “Brava!” and help each other take another step forward, and in that way create new patterns of mutual empowerment that others may be inspired to follow.

Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and a Ph.D. candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. She loves all things feminist. Finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters.

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Categories: Academy, Activism, Feminism, Gender and Power, General, Herstory, Justice, Media, Sisterhood

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28 replies

  1. Thank you Xochitl,a thoughtful and illuminating post. It is so necessary that our own voice is heard no matter how different to any other. It always allows for the opportunity to hear yet another side …

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  2. Thank you Xochitl, an illuminating post emphasizing the value of each woman’s voice no matter how different to ours. Each voice needs to be heard ..

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  3. Brava, dear Xochitl! We can choose to despair over the lack of rights which many women still experience, or recognise the women (and children’s) rights are increasingly front page news in today’s off and online media. We are dealing with millennia of oppression, not just centuries. Woman’s suffrage is only a century old in many countries.

    So, let’s be realistic about the scale of what needs to change, and optimistic that it can be changed. Like you, I believe in encouraging women,wherever they live, no matter how difficult their circumstance. Progress at the individual level is the way that change happens, and our real and virtual support helps enormously.

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  4. “To belittle or discount the forms that agency and empowerment take for other women effectively denies their dignity and subjectivity.” How often this is forgotten. It makes me think of times I was patronized during my time as a young graduate student at UCLA. Some of my well-meaning American friends could not fathom simple acts of courtesy to my fiance then as anything other than subjugation to the power of a man. Thank you, Xochitl.

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  5. This sheds some light on yesterday’s conversations on this site. Thanks.

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  6. Thank you for this. It is sometimes difficult for us to expand our vision to try to understand the experiences of others, when they differ from our own. As a Unitarian Universalist, I sometimes struggle to listen with an open heart to views that clash with my own while feeling “in my heart” that my views are really the RIGHT ones. We can never really know the experience of another, and while expressing our own feelings/views is important, crossing the line to insist that we are right and another is wrong can be contributing to discord and a defensive posture on the part of someone who may feel attacked for being “stupid” or ignorant. We are all at different places on the journey. I appreciate the openness and supportive atmosphere of this site.

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  7. Thank you, Xotichl! I was just thinking about a related issue yesterday and I wonder if you can clarify your perspective on it in light of today’s post. I was in a waiting room with a television that was airing “The Talk,” a show in which several women discuss contemporary issues and pop culture. They were discussing the overt sexualization of many pop and hip-hop female stars. While many of the hosts were lamenting this type of sexualization, Aisha Tyler made the argument that what feminism and women’s liberation brought us is an affirmation of women’s choices, so we have to honor the choice of women to market themselves in overtly sexual ways. For the record, I have no interest in repressing women’s sexuality or hiding it from the mainstream, but I think a feminist critique of the practice will ask whether women are freely expressing themselves or freely choosing to adopt patriarchal patterns of objectification. if it is the latter, the mere fact that women “freely” choose to do so doesn’t exempt it from feminist critique. So I was a little frustrated with Tyler’s reduction of the feminist agenda to one of choice without reference to its stance against patriarchy.

    Above, you ask “Will we uphold each other’s right to effect feminist change in our respective parts of the world – even when the enactment falls outside of what we ourselves would choose or envision? Are we willing to recognize that all of our different choices are particular, contextual, and historically located?” These questions prompted me to revisit my reaction to the tv discussion. Tyler’s description of feminism is one I would consider incomplete. Although i respect her and like her work as a comedian, tv host, actress and writer, I want to challenge the form of feminism she embodies. Is it fair to do so, as women of the same culture and (roughly) same generation and race? Or are our differences in context, Hollywood vs Academia too separate? I do not think you mean to suggest that respecting someone’s practice of feminism means completely agreeing with it. So would you perhaps clarify or weigh in on my questions? Thanks again for an insightful post.

    Elise

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    • Thanks Elise for asking this – I think it pushes me take the post further. First, yes, I agree with you that feminism is more than just about women being able to make choices. Inherent to feminism is a critique of the patterns of hierarchy, domination, and exploitation that are embedded into systems and structures, which function as oppressive forces over people, working to maintain the privilege of some at the great cost of others. Further, feminisms recognize that these patterns play out in very sexed and gender ways; which is why we call this reality patriarchy.

      You are so right that I am not trying to suggest that we must agree with each other’s feminist enactments – I surely don’t. There are probably a couple of things influencing the emphases I make in this post. First, I really appreciate Saba Mahmood’s challenge to rethink how we define criticism – that I couldn’t fully include in the post – which invites us to move beyond the simple tearing down of the position of the other. Instead she says that critique should open us up to our own ‘undoing’ – which I think means that we are willing to not just raise objections to another, but be open to learning something new from them and considering the possibility that we might be wrong. Or at least be open to the reality that we have blind spots we haven’t considered or can’t consider until we engage one another with vulnerability. I just thought this was brilliant, and very feminist in contrast to the patriarchy I describe above.

      The other thing is that I cannot stand to see us tear each other down. We are not each other’s enemies – the systems are the enemies; giant oppressive forces are the enemies; deeply embedded patterns of hierarchy and exploitation are the enemy. We are already up against all that, why would we want to add each other to that which we are up against? As feminists we work in both large and small ways to resist, disrupt, and change these structures, which is a tremendous task. So as we engage across our differences (truly engage), I would like us to do so in ways that are consistent with and reflective of the very objectives we work toward. I’d like us to not tear each other down, but instead practice new patterns of engagement that in and of themselves reflect the kind of transformation we’d like to see in the world.

      I can go on and on, Elise! So let me stop here for now ;) And thank you again!

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    • Wonderful nuanced question, Elise!! And it’s a tough one, too. If I were asked, I would begin answering by saying that there’s a difference between what any individual feminist thinks is true and what different parts of the movement are doing out of their own very different situations. As individuals, I think we can disagree respectfully with each other, realizing that our perspective isn’t the only one. But when I’m interacting with someone from a different religion than my own, especially one that I know very little about, I’m also cautious as well as respectful. And when it’s a whole movement within a religion that’s not mine, I’m willing to leave their tactics and strategies up to them, unless it seems to impede feminism or degrades women as a whole, and then it affects me as well. I responded to yesterday’s post about Mormonism’s denial of women’s potential priesthood in that second way, as a report from a movement within Mormon feminism.

      This post reminds me of a song by Betsy Rose and Cathy Winter that I used to perform in the 1970s: “Don’t shut my sister out,/ Trust her choices,/ Her women’s wisdom and her will to grow,/ Don’t shut my sister out,/ Trust her vision,/ Her intuition of her own way to go.”

      Re: marketing oneself in overtly sexual ways, it affects all of us. This was a discussion of female hip-hop and pop stars, and what they wear is influencing what young women in our culture wear. If they sell themselves as sex objects, this just makes it more probable that young women will do the same, buying into patriarchy’s assumptions about women. And it affects me, too, although to a much lesser degree, because it undermines my wholeness as a woman and categorizes me as just a sex object.

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  8. “Feminisms need to be enacted in the unique and creative ways that are born from the inspiration of the women who are directly affected.”

    There seems to me an irony that the inner sanctum of religious faiths is often more inclusive and understanding of other paths than is shown to the world. I spent 17 years as a lay member of a convent community, but the amazing thing is that it was there that I discovered world religions. The nuns had an extensive private library with writings on every religious faith you could name including traditions of the far east, as well as paganism, and where I first met Carol’s WOMANSPIRIT RISING. The nuns meditated seated on zazen pillows on the floor and practiced yoga, as a form of daily exercise. Thomas Merton set an excellent example of what an open and healthy path religion can be. In my opinion the same is true for FAR.

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  9. Beautiful, Xochitl! How wise to add an “s” to -ism!

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  10. It is a complicated thing, but feminism is quite simple. To me it is about women’s liberation from male rule and tyranny. We have to take into account that women support the very institutions that are out to get me–the catholic church, the mormon church are at war with lesbians. Women who support these institutions aren’t on my side, they are traitors to women like me. I’m not going to let them off the hook, because supporting those religious institutions is simply not feminist. It is conformist, it is about the patriarchal family system, it is about the hetero family unit, but it has nothing to do with the liberation of women.

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  11. Thank you all for your comments – this is hard stuff, and I do think we need to give one another the best of ourselves as we engage across our differences. *How* we do it matters. There’s a quote attributed to Sonia Johnson – “The means are the ends. HOW we do something is WHAT we get.” I think it’s true, and I think it’s hard to live by this too, but important. The young activist, Malala Yousafzai, said something similar in her interview on the Jon Stewart show.

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  12. I too hate to see us tearing each other down. Mormon feminists are not the enemy, Catholic feminists are not the enemy, black Christian feminists are not the enemy, Goddess feminists are not the enemy, radical lesbian feminists are not the enemy, white feminists are not the enemy, heterosexual feminists are not the enemy, and we all need to open ourselves to learning from the others, to widening our viewpoints, and to understanding, as you so beautifully say, that the system of patriarchy (which includes the control of women’s sexuality, private property, war, and the taking of slaves and property in war) is the enemy and it works in many and diverse ways in many and diverse contexts. Recognizing this and more, we can and must respectfully disagree with each other. I personally have seen dressing sexually as liberating, but I also see the issues raised above by Elise and sometimes wonder how free my younger self really was. We are complex and full of contradictions, all of us. Let us respect that in ourselves as well. Love to you Xochitl and love your voice.

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  13. I and my sisters in Islam have been attacked for lack of authenticity by non-Muslim Feminists as well as by the Patriarchs of our own tradition. Some of the ugliest things that have been said and some of the ugliest treatment I have received as a Muslim has been at the hands of Feminists. Your openness to bridge experience and listen made me cry. We are not often extended the hand of sisterhood.

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  14. I am in awe of everything about this post. I agree we are a richer community when we listen to each other’s differing experiences and approaches to feminist issues. I’m grateful for the way that radical feminists stretch and influence my own thinking. I’m grateful for the way feminists working within patriarchal structures model bridge-building with those who fear the “f” word. I need all of it if I’m going to be able to make my own contribution where I am.

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  15. Xochitl,
    I honor you for your thoughtfulness, compassion, and generosity. This is a post I will return to again and again.

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  16. Xochitl —

    I LOVE THIS POST! It reflects some of the reasons that I wanted to start a journal of international feminism in 1980 (it never happened, thank goodness, because I was never cut out to be an editor). Here are the sentences that reminded me of that intent on my part: “We cannot practice feminism outside the reality of actual women’s lives. There are all kinds of realities in the world, and rightly so, there are all kinds of feminisms in the world as well. Feminisms need to be enacted in the unique and creative ways that are born from the inspiration of the women who are directly affected – the women whose lives are on the line.”

    But for me your most important sentence is: “Are we able to bring our honest and personal perspectives to one another with openness and vulnerability, hoping that we’ll both receive something from the encounter to which we wouldn’t otherwise have access?” By definition, speaking across difference involves vulnerability, because it’s harder to make ourselves understood when the “givens” in our lives may vary. We need to remember that when we post here. And remember that vulnerability takes great courage. So…courageous FAR women (and men), let’s continue this wonderful, fascinating discussion as we move forward to create more feminist spaces in our lives. Brava to all of us!

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  17. This is a great post. It seems to have especially resonated with “feminist”-identified women. As Laury Silver mentioned, feminist-identified Muslim women still face the closure of many “western” feminists (even on this blog site) for our devotion to our faith as it moves us. I am sure you do not intend to contribute to that, by the sensitivity of your essay.

    But, there is another angle to this which is missing from your blog and the subsequent comments…

    Feminism may NOT be the unifying principle for all women as agents.

    I have a specific date and specific set of circumstances that I recall when I finally accepted to be identified as feminist myself (and that was 2009 with the launching of http://www.musawah.org a global movement for reform in Muslim family law). Nevertheless, my research methodology had long had OTHERS placing me in the feminist category.

    There was and even here continues to be, still, too many presumptions that if western women identify the other characteristics of their location then they do in fact manage to become “sisters” to other women. Yet their awareness of and actual participation in the efforts to seek agency of those other women is not much more than linguistic eloquence.

    We do not achieve this sister-hood just by wishing but by working for the realities of justice in the intersectionality that women world wide need and in many cases fight to experience.

    That includes women who adamantly oppose the label feminism.

    I know this is a slippery slope but I have decided that it is more important for women to experience wellness than it is for them to be feminist. Especially since western feminists have still overwhelmingly presumed they have the upper hand on both the discourses and the desired results of that discourse.

    It is simple really. Like I tell Muslim men (every chance I get) I would tell western feminists the same: “My freedom, justice, dignity and honor are NOT gifts you can give me. They are ontologically mine (“given by God” is the wording I use in my faith circles). They who have not walked a mile in my shoes and yet still think they have something to give me from what they have attained, presume too much privilege.

    The world is getting smaller but its vastness is more overwhelming than we might care to think because the realities of women’s lives across this world are so astounding in their complexities. Furthermore, many women will live and die and never know the word feminism. All women’s lives count, nonetheless.

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    • This is a great point, amina – thank you. Feminism may not be a unifying principle for all; and women’s well-being is definitely more important. Over time I have learned to temper the idealism with which I hold my feminism; Saba Mahmood’s “Politics of Piety” has been a really influential book for me in this regard. I love how she write about being willing to be undone by our encounter with the other – having our feminisms be undone too – and in that way learn to do better. Thank you.

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  18. I think it is a logical response when women who are supporting institutions that are killing my people, demonizing them and creating a hostile culture to lesbian feminists, well women need to be called out on this. The mormon church is not a friend to lesbians or to women who want liberation. So I think women should be called out when women support structures that oppress me. I’m not going along with that ever. And I think it is time feminism has some standards of conduct and supporting male churches is anti-feminist in the radical sense of the word. It is accomodation to male supremacy, it is go along to get along, it is lesbian hating to the core, and I will call this out again and again her till my dying day. I will not go along with this, because those institutions are the enemy. What do we do with women who support these womanhating institutions? I don’t know, but I get a little sick of the go alongism here at the expense of lesbian freedom. Do hetero women actually think about how this would look? Obviously not.

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    • I also have a problem with women who support institutions that suppress/limit/control them, but we live in a WORLD that does these things to women. It’s not just religious institutions – it’s political and cultural institutions. How do we begin to make the changes that we need to make in order to bend the world to become more equal? Must we have a women’s revolution, and take down the whole infrastructure of society? Or is it possible to whittle away at the prejudices in pieces, until things start to bend towards justice? We have to be careful that we don’t “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” because not every part of our culture is bad. Part of what makes these issues complicated is the way good things are mixed in with bad things. For example, churches are often the places that take care of feeding the poor and finding housing for the homeless. Our government is not set up to take care of all of the needy (and some conservative types see all poor and needy people as “parasites” and “lazy”, and don’t want the government to take care of them), and religious institutions often take up the slack in these areas. Also, if change happens too quickly, there is often nasty backlash that undermines any progress that has been made. People are complicated and many are resistant to change of any sort – even change that could eventually make their lives better. For those of us who have been on the receiving end of lots of prejudice and even violence because we are “different,” it’s hard when change happens so slowly, but we have to remember that some women are truly trapped – in abusive marriages, in homeless/poor/sick situations – and they might not have the freedom to just “stop talking to men,” or “leave the situation.” We are not all the same, and I think that FAR is a good venue for discussion about how to proceed in making the changes that need to be made.

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  19. Women must radically question everything in patriarchy, everything. I don’t see how supporting as a volunteer churches that have waged war on women is helping the cause. Women donate volunteer labor to churches that attack me, strip me of my rights, and I’m just not going to not call them out on this behavior. It is self serving, and it is morally wrong in my opinion. To support those churches is morally wrong, and it is deluded thinking to call this feminism. It is accomodationism, it is heterosexism at its most horrific, but it certainly has nothing to do with the liberation of women. Why call it what it isn’t?

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  20. “I know this is a slippery slope but I have decided that it is more important for women to experience wellness than it is for them to be feminist. Especially since western feminists have still overwhelmingly presumed they have the upper hand on both the discourses and the desired results of that discourse.” I consider being a radical lesbian feminist to be about my wellness in the world. And god doesn’t create this, radical lesbian feminists created this, so it is inherently the most radical position women can take, because we will not bow down to men. It is the gift we give ourselves despite what men do to lesbians and what hetero women do to lesbians in their quest to placate men and patriarchy.

    “It is simple really. Like I tell Muslim men (every chance I get) I would tell western feminists the same: “My freedom, justice, dignity and honor are NOT gifts you can give me. They are ontologically mine (“given by God” is the wording I use in my faith circles). They who have not walked a mile in my shoes and yet still think they have something to give me from what they have attained, presume too much privilege.”
    As a radical lesbian I assume my resistence to male supremacy in all its forms is about each woman’s discovery of this. Each lesbian who awakens to this in every country of the world must figure it out for herself.

    I’ve found this to be true of all radical lesbian feminists I’ve met around the world, in Japan, in Germany, in Mexico, and in neutral countries where Saudi radical lesbians have fled execution to be free. They are heroines who have survived despite heteropatriarchy, and our commonality is profound. It is outside the view of hetero women, who actually can bring a lot of danger with them. It is a univeral longing to have this woman’s country, free of all domination.

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