Feminist Killjoys, Safe Spaces and Futures

In the first post of our BIG return, we dive straight in and tackle the image of Feminists as ‘killjoys’. Blogger, writer, Feminist, and founder of The Body Narratives, Hana Riaz kicks things off with a discussion about the effects of mainstream representation of women who subscribe to Feminism; misread notions of what Feminism is and who it is for; the significance of Women of Colour within the movement (and on its periphery); and the effects of deviating from ‘the norm’. She shares why ‘safe’ spaces are key for our development as women sure of our own identity, and explores why the killjoy is ultimately at the helm of the social change we seek. 

The feminist in mainstream and popular culture particularly in the West has come to be depicted as the killjoy. In establishing equal rights, they forgot to jump off the bandwagon that reached its final destination maybe sometime in the 80s. This we know because the era of women’s liberation is in full fruition, a time where a few (rich White) women have the privilege of sharing the corporate table with their male counterparts, can willingly become thonged-out video vixens or in Kim Kardashian’s case be the ‘beautiful talent’ that profits from the continued consumption of women as objects. More importantly, we can have it all – jobs, families, plastic surgery to stay forever young (no matter how classed, raced, and imperial this assumption is). Those damned feminists, quite frankly, have nothing real to complain about and spend their lives dampening the mood of those around them, killing the joy and the jokes that keep mild everyday misogyny playful (not harmful). But where anti-feminism is rife and cool, the feminist is whittled down to an inescapable melancholia.

One of the most misrepresented notions of feminism is that it is an ideology. It is not. Feminism – the feminism to which I refer is that of Women of Colour/third world/subaltern feminisms – offer a praxis: a set of tools and resources to critically engage, deconstruct and reimagine the world. These feminisms in particular, have been informed by lived experiences, by the activism that has driven the bid for equality and justice globally. It does not offer up a definitive view or perspective of the world other than the ending of systems of domination. bell hooks in Feminism is for Everybody for example states that feminism “is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.”

Instead feminism presents a series of points of departure, questions even that seek to identify how we really challenge systemic inequality and what the world might look like after. The gap between thought, imagination and real life is closed in this space, and no area off limits. Writers such as bell hooks, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Chandra Mohanty, and Gloria Anzaldúa (amongst others) have produced work that accounts for systems of domination such as slavery, immigration, prison-military-industrial complexes, and war to wellbeing, trauma, healing and love. The feminist praxis is a holistic one – our beings, our bodies, our lives irrefutably interconnected with the world around us, the personal always political.

But with this, perhaps, a real sense of melancholia does accompany the decision to break free and break into a decolonised new. When you dedicate yourself to doing this work, exorcising what and how we think we know, the world you so intimately cling to, the foundations you were born into, slip away. It becomes an excavation and in the process you lay to rest the things that may have defined you or those around you. Everything becomes much more stark, indivisible, you make an agency orientated choice to wholeheartedly commit to the possibility of a world free from –isms and in that is a personal price to pay.

The feminist killjoy in the popular imaginary is the bra-burning woman who refuses to shave her legs in order to stick it to the man and is most likely a lesbian. In reality, she is someone in fact who interrupts socially constructed notions of happiness, moments that are otherwise steeped in uncritical acceptance. In calling out oppressions and resisting them, her “failure to be happy is read as sabotaging the happiness of others” (Ahmed, 2010a). Furthermore, it’s not just about ‘feelings’, it is about particular types of bodies that disrupt and subvert, and about which bodies obstruct both literally and symbolically the happiness that others wilfully receive as a consequence of inequality and oppression.

Sara Ahmed in The Promise of Happiness (2010) speaks about the ways in which women, in particular, are punished for their deviation and rewarded for staying in line. In referring to Bend It Like Beckham where Jess is punished by her family for playing football, her individual happiness is secured by conforming to heterosexist nationalist desires through a white man: “the narrative of bending the rules of femininity involves a straightening device… narratives of rebellion can involve deviations from the straight line if they return us to this point” (p145). For the feminist, however, there is no line to return to, it is a full deviation and in exchange she is awarded the punishment of melancholia where “what is lost is withdrawn from consciousness…. The object of loss for melancholics is missing; they do not know what they are missing” (p140).

For a long time I felt this severance and disjunction, a type of strange nostalgia that I could identify but did not necessarily desire. As a queer Woman of Colour and feminist, my world unravelled and I was forced to interrogate and leave age-old, familiar, embodied like things behind. Islam and even my South Asianness fell under the microscope, a dismantling of sorts in order to fully decolonise. The world as I knew it no longer looked the same. Sometimes, it took the form of coming to terms that there would be little to reconcile in certain personal relationships because I could not concede to the demands patriarchy would require to maintain them. It was being deeply hurt when men in the communities I identified as part of would rarely ‘show up’ in the face of the violence (often physical) that Women of Colour or LGBT folk around me faced daily. It was no longer being able to laugh at the jokes I knew were a stone throw away from being real violences. I felt helpless and isolated in the face of attempting to love, of wanting a world where those on the margins are recognised as fully human.

Naturally, I began to retreat from white spaces and heteronormative spaces in search of safe ones. The alternatives did not require me to compromise; some of these organising spaces and others as simple as personal relationships. Last week I ventured out to a Black Queer event on visibility and voice only to find a room in which white privilege (and white male privilege in particular) continued its usual silencing, of speaking over, on behalf of and at Black folk. I left with a migraine. I also was afforded the joys of hearing Angela Davis speak, a woman who needs no introduction, only to witness again the ways in which her presence, voice and work as a Black woman academic had to be legitimated by two rich, white men. Upon leaving the event, after sharing that anger and frustration with the black and brown women around me, a group of young Women of Colour feminists plastered a poster to the wall voicing the same sentiments. There was closeness in that presence of one another.

It’s not that the need for safe spaces is a desire for exclusivity to massage egos and affirm a particular world view, it is a desire to be fully present in entirety, to be in spaces that go beyond the bickering of whether x, y or z exists, that don’t operate on silencing, of being able to do the work that is being done. It is also a desire to be able to love and be loved, to find a community of possibility, of connection based on value, resistance and work. It is making space for new kinds of de-colonial desires that are unable to be fulfilled elsewhere, particularly where desire is reduced to a consumable, individual happiness as opposed to a spectrum of continuity and fulfilment not always directly related to happiness as an object. It has also been learning not to take myself so seriously, to experience joy in frivolousness without surrendering my convictions, to be able to celebrate small mercies and take people as whole and flawed.  It is far from being comfortable, it is constantly being challenged to grow and build as a person that is accountable and responsible. It is living in compassion.

The feminist killjoy need not be apologetic. It is part liberation/part punishment, the melancholy part loss/part hope. I now claim my feminist killjoyness with less guilt or shame, they come at the helm where I make major personal life style changes in order to do the work I wholeheartedly stand by in resistance. I am at my best when I am around people that inspire me to do and be better within and outside of myself. As small as that pool may be, it carries with it depth and weight to carry on, to continue to do meaningful work, to live with full purpose and belonging. The joy experienced there, in and amongst these Others, is something I wouldn’t change for the life of me. There is no going back, only a future I now have the audacity to dream up.


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