This post draws much from a previous post I wrote back in 2013, which generated great discussion in the comments. I came back to it as I was reflecting on our sisters’ revolution in Iran, Women, Life, Freedom, following the death of Mahsa “Zina” Amini while she was in the custody of the “morality police” in Iran. This woman-led movement has been nonstop for seven weeks. I’m in full support of the women and have continued to learn more about their context and history. The movement is powerful and inspiring, heavy and difficult, but its energy is alive and blazing. There is an impromptu song that has come to represent the movement; the song was created by linking real-time tweets and Instagram posts together – you can hear the song, read the lyrics, and see the screenshots in the video below:
Now the post I’m drawing back to from 2013 – a little different from the original – but one intended to invite us to reflect on our engagement with and support of one another across place and difference. And about the relationship between the local and global, and the need to hold a balance of both.
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.
As feminists who participate in spaces of diversity, like this one, we reflectively consider the manner in which we engage one another across these differences. In her comments to the original post, Nancy, noted 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.” Contexts are a real part of our concrete differences [In Iran, women are protesting the hijab. In India, they’re suing to wear it]. We can recognize that often our different choices are particular, contextual, and historically located. So we bring our honest and personal perspectives to one another with openness and vulnerability in hope that we both receive something from the encounter to which we wouldn’t otherwise have access.
This raises the question of whether respecting someone’s practice of feminism means completely agreeing with it…in Saba Mahmood’s definition of critique, she invites us to move beyond tearing down the position of the other. She states that critique should open us up to our own ‘undoing’ – which I think means that we are willing to not just raise questions to another, but be open to learning something new from them and considering the possibility that we might be wrong or that we have blind spots we haven’t considered or can’t consider until we engage one another with vulnerability, for which proximity is also needed.
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 us shout, “Brava!” for one another’s next steps and help each other take another step forward in new patterns of mutual empowerment. Women, Life, Freedom!
Xochitl Alvizo, loves all things feminist, womanist, and decolonial. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard 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; it makes a difference for good or for ill. She teaches in the area of Women and Religion, and the Philosophy of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, at California State University, Northridge. She lives in Los Angeles, CA where she was also born and raised.