Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wednesay March 31: make/shift in Olympia

Pacific Northwest Tour

Make/shift is teaming with filmmaker (and make/shift contributor) Hilary Goldberg for a Pacific Northwest tour. Our multimedia events will showcase grassroots, multi-issue feminist art and activism with readings, film and video works, and more. More info here

3/31: Olympia Public Library, Olympia
4/2: University of Washington, Seattle
4/3: Left Bank Books, Seattle

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Women in Egypt by Angela Davis

Women in Egypt is a theoretically rich essay that documents a trip Angela Davis took to Egypt in the mid-80's. She made the journey intending to write about her experience, not realizing at first that the funding for her travel stipulated that she focus her writing about women on sex. At the time there was a crusade on the part of some influential western feminists to "save" third world women from the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This campaign was culturally insensitive, condescending and ignorant to the point of overt racism and often went hand in hand with an imperialist agenda. Davis was aware of this dynamic and sensitive to this complexity, but got caught in the middle of some serious conflict nonetheless, which she navigates thoughtfully here in telling the story.

Women in Egypt does a great job of reflecting all the nuances of this situation, taking colonial "feminists" to task for imposing an agenda onto a setting they often understood little about. Davis carefully re-frames the issues, documenting feminist debate/disagreement among Egyptian women and examining her own position as an African-American citizen of the United States with a revolutionary agenda. Davis does not defend FGM, but she explores how Egyptian feminists talk about it and gives the reader a complicated picture.

This condescending style of "feminism" probably sounds somewhat familiar to you, even if you haven't read much post-colonial feminist theory because it's very similar to what happened after 9/11. Suddenly Laura Bush and Ms. Magazine were working together to "save" Afghan women from the Taliban as a justification for war!* Imperial aggression on behalf of feminism? Who is "saved" by bombs? Please read what what RAWA and other Afghan women have to say about this if you haven't already.

I first read Women in Egypt during the Gulf War in early '91. I remember quoting it in an essay I wrote that examined media representations of women and war--contrasting the "liberated" American female soldier marching off to war to "save" the "oppressed" Arab woman symbolized by the veil. This has become such a prevalent trope since 9/11 that its hypocrisy might not strike us with the full force that it deserves.

In the face of this absurd propaganda and imperialist nonsense western feminists need to become familiar with the history of feminism in the Middle East. Egypt has a rich feminist history and is a good place to start. Last night when I was reading We Egyptian Women by Inji Aflatun I was struck by how much I don't know, although I have read some stuff...I don't want to generalize about Aflatun's essay, because I really don't fully understand the context it was written in, so I'm going to spend a little bit of time with that this week and it may be awhile before I write about it here.

Anyhow, I don't want to be like, HEY!, this is Jigsaw's GUIDE to FEMINIST THEORY like I know it all and I'm the authority on everything. It's more like, I really think it's important to talk about this stuff and by using Jigsaw as a way to do this work publicly, hopefully I'm encouraging participation and starting a conversation. I did study transnational feminisms in school but really think this needs to happen outside of the classroom setting in order to have more of an impact.

Re-Reading Women in Egypt by Angela Davis last night, I realized this was the starting point for me. It was when it clicked in my head, right, ok...if I want to know about women in Egypt, then I need to research Egyptian feminism and learn how women define issues there, because their issues are not going to be the same as my issues, duh, and also, I need to be careful not to treat "women in Egypt" as a monolithic entity, but realize that among Egyptian feminists there is disagreement and conflict and class difference...rural/urban difference etc....and I also need to look at the history of the country in terms of colonialism and examine the culture and look at the history of U.S. foreign policy, political economy...and position myself as a U.S. citizen, white, college-educated etc. In a word, specificity.

So I want to take this opportunity to thank Angela Davis for this great essay and suggest that everyone read it if you haven't already. It was published in her book Women, Culture and Politics but it may have been re-published since then. Her writing is so good here. A lot of her later work is filled with academic jargon and some of her earlier stuff is as well, but this is clear, super readable and seems to be written for a popular, non-academic audience. Highly recommended!

To my readers: I'd be interested in hearing about feminist theory that had a similarly expansive impact on your thinking.

*For more writing on this, check out an essay by Amy Farrel and Patrice McDermott called Claiming Afghan Women: The Challenge of Human Rights Discourse for Transnational Feminism in Just Advocacy: Women's Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms and The Politics of Representation, edited by Wendy S. Hesford and Wendy's hard to read (academic language) but pretty good.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Yosano Akiko

The Feminist Theory Reader (FTR) starts with this poem by Yosano Akiko. In 1911 it was included in the introduction of the first issues of Seito, a Japanese feminist literary journal.

The day the mountains move has come.
I speak, but no one believes me.
For a time the mountains have been asleep.
But long ago they all danced with fire.
It doesn't matter if you don't believe this,
my friends, as long as you believe:
All the sleeping women
are now awake and moving.

According to the interpretation given in the FTR, Akiko is comparing women's creativity to a volcano. Unless you live next to an active volcano, this metaphor might seem a little abstract and obvious, but living in Olympia, Mount Rainier is looming. All my life I've been told that this mountain could erupt at any moment, that we are due for a major earthquake, that a tidal wave will cover the town, that the lava flow will cause mudslides that will reach the Puget Sound and that there is nothing we can do when this happens. We will be doomed. There is no "volcano evacuation plan"...

Now I am not a mystical person. I'm not superstitious and I don't particularly even like nature but I've also grown up with weird stories about Mount Rainier. There is a spot on 1-5 between Tacoma and Seattle near Fife where the mountain is glorious on a clear day. At this very spot, legend has it, a man will appear in your back seat and you will see him in the rear view mirror. This is a spot where the lava will flow freely when the time comes and the valley, which is now mostly paved over and filled with used car lots, used to be lush agricultural fields full of strawberries, green beans and cucumbers. The soil in the valley is rich with minerals from volcanic ash. To pave over this fertile land is apocalyptic and bleak. Supposedly this guy will show up in your car and tell you when Mount Rainier is going to erupt and then he disappears. Most people pull over at this point and when the cops come, they ask, "did you see a figure in your rear view mirror" the story goes. This happened to an old friend of mine. Do I believe it? Well...I can't really say. But this is one of those regional legends that people tell and has local currency.

I prefer Yosano Akiko's story. As a woman I often struggle with my own creative forces. I like the idea that when we are inactive, we are dormant, like Mt. Rainier on a clear day, but one day we will erupt because it is inevitable. And perhaps the longer we are dormant the more power we are storing up, the more physical damage will be done, the further-reaching and more deeply rooted the resulting structural transformation will be.

On May 18, 1980, when Mount St. Helen's erupted, we had to wear ash-masks to school for weeks and the geographical landscape was forever altered. Men were killed. Rivers became tree-filled mud-flows. A pristine lake occupied by tourists became an uninhabitable natural wasteland. It was pretty cool. And Mount St. Helens is a tiny mountain compared to Mount Rainier. Perhaps riot grrrl was like Mount St. Helens. Next time it will be Mount Rainier. Maybe it won't happen in our lifetime, but maybe it will. We are amassing our power while we are dormant. It might not be visible to the eye. But appearances are often deceptive.

It doesn't matter if you don't believe this, my friends...

Read more about Yosano Akiko here

Inji Aflatun & Egyptian Feminism

Ok...up late reading "We Egyptian Women" by Inji Aflatun in the Feminist Theory Reader (FTR) instead of going to see Girl Trouble open for Blowfly or Joey Casio at the Red House.

So I'm sitting here concentrating on this short essay that argues for women's suffrage and full political participation and realize that the FTR is giving me no context whatsoever other than that it was written in 1949. This is the second entry after the intro. Not a good sign.

No history of Egypt, no economic analysis of colonialism, no discussion of Egypt in WW2 etc

So, I got out all these books and started re-reading "Women in Egypt" by Angela Davis in Women, Culture and Politics (which is just such a great essay by the way), looking for my Nawal El Sadaawi Reader (can't find it), skimming the chapter on Egypt in The Darker Nations by Vijay Prashad (so good), checking the index of Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam (I really need to read this whole book someday), glancing at Harem Years by Huda Shaarawi (which I forgot I even had)...then I come in and start googling "feminism in Egypt" and now it's really late and I am feeling invigorated yet overwhelmed by how much I don't know and how much I want to learn.

Well, this is my idea of fun, but I don't have too much to report just yet....other than that it seems like a gross oversight to start a feminist anthology with this essay without any kind of socio-economic or cultural/political context. Huh.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Spotlight on Mimi Nguyen

A few weeks ago I got back in touch with Mimi Nguyen, a former pen-pal of mine from the 90's grrl-zine days. After hearing from her at work I googled her and found out that she has taught a course on fashion and feminism that sounds interesting. We've since been corresponding a bit and she sent me a link to her blog, threadbared, which I've been reading this week and has made me feel less crazy.

About a year ago I went on an anti-fashion feminist tirade that was ultimately productive but led to a lot of hurt feelings and difficult conversations with some younger women in my community who felt insulted by my emotional spiel against something meaningful to them. Looking back, part of that was related to turning 40 and starting to feel alienated from youth culture yet still being totally immersed in it as a musician and an aging punk rocker.

I've calmed down a lot since then and even taken to reading the occasional fashion blog. Still, the "feminist" writing I have seen on fashion does not reflect the kind of analysis or complexity that I am looking for. I want to see writing about sweatshops. I'm sick of seeing the "feminist" orientalist trope of "the veil" as a symbol of oppression contrasted with fashion as a celebration of "freedom" practiced by western women. I want this discussion to go beyond the individualism that equates style with personal choice and personal choice with feminism, so therefore style=feminism. Mediocre "feminist" magazines, women-owned businesses and fashion shows that encourage consumerism are way too compatible with the insidious post-90's DIY boutique-y "hipster" "indie" culture that facilitates gentrification, fosters niche-marketing and lacks a radical political agenda.

This frustration is not just about being dissatisfied with feminism-as-fashion or not being able to find a fashion blog I can relate to on a personal level. It's about wanting to be a part of a truly radical anti-capitalist feminist movement and not seeing this happening in my community. I keep thinking that maybe if I keep looking I will find it, that perhaps I am more isolated than I realize as I get older here in Olympia, which is a college town filled with an ever migratory population of young/ish adults who call each other "kids". I want an economic analysis. I want to see post-colonial theory become more accessible. I want punk rock feminism to evolve and address racism, imperialism, empire and war.

Anyhow, reading threadbared this week as well as the new issue of make/shift, I finally feel like there is a glimmer of hope!

From their bio:

We are two clotheshorse academics who write, teach, and speak about the politics of fashion and beauty.

Minh-Ha T. Pham, based in New York City and San Francisco, shops sample sales with a keen and discerning eye. She writes about the ways in which national publics and polities are organized around traditional and new media that are increasingly shaped and limited by neoliberal discourses and policies. Focusing on the fashion media and the Vietnamese American media, both her projects are concerned with the complex and contradictory relations of communication technologies, consumerism, and capitalism.

Mimi Thi Nguyen, based outside of Chicago, scours thrift and vintage stores with reckless abandon. Situating her scholarly work within transnational feminist cultural studies, she writes about neoliberalism and humanitarianism, war and empire. A former zinester, Punk Planet columnist and Maximumrocknroll shitworker, she has also published on punk and queer subcultures.

In addition to writing fanzines (Aim Your Dick and Evolution of a Race Riot) Mimi Nguyen is also a former columnist for Punk Planet and has created an archival blog of her writing called Thread and Circuits.

Today she posted her own piece on Race & Riot Grrl, which you should totally read, especially in light of yesterday's post.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Letter to Anna & "Feminisms" with an "S"

Last night a woman named Anna emailed me from New Zealand, asking for "any thoughts about where you saw race and anti-racism fitting into the riot grrrl scene." Her letter reminded me that part of the reason I want to study and discuss feminist theory here, as part of Jigsaw, is because the version of feminism that exists in popular culture is watered-down and incomplete.

I am interested in transnational feminisms that address imperialism, empire, economics, war, racism, genocide and neo-colonialism as well as queer/trans issues. I'm also interested in examining the history of white, western/northern, hetero-normative, middle-class feminism, in order to figure out how to create a more radical (anti-empire, anti-capitalist, anti-racist) feminist movement. So that is part of the motivation behind this project.

The Feminist Theory Reader (FTR for short) I am reading has a similar aim. In the introduction, the editors ask:

How is women's subordination as women connected to related oppressions based on race, ethnicity, nationality, class and sexuality?

Making this a central question, they chose articles that present "multi-racial u.s. feminisms" within a global framework. By writing about "feminisms" rather than feminism, they call for a "multi-vocal feminist theory", claiming: "there can be no one theory of gender subordination or a best strategy for change".

The editors go on to say that they want to interrogate what they call "the normative women's experience" that is at the center of white, northern, middle class and/or hetero feminism. By contrasting examples of feminism w/ "the normative subject" at its center with "counter voices that trouble the privileges and exclusions within those texts", the editors aim to de-center the privileged version of feminism and offer a more inclusive, open model. If that sounds confusing, I think it will become clear as I discuss specific articles in the book. And like I said before, please read along if you like, it would be a lot better to have people to discuss this with as a conversation, rather than just rambling off on my own tangents. Ideally, this kind of work would be done in collaboration, but in the absence of a feminist theory book club I decided to just push forward and share what I'm thinking about here in journal form.

Here's part of what I wrote in my letter to Anna:

One of the reasons I wasn't super involved in riot grrl after it started (other than through Bikini Kill/ and making zines) was because I thought it was too universalizing and too focused on this supposed common identity of "being a girl" and that that somehow makes us all victims....this is hard to generalize about, but I had read Inessential Woman by Elizabeth Spelman and Gender Trouble by Judith Butler as well as Feminist Theory From Margin to Center & Ain't I a Woman by bell hooks and Women, Race and Class & Women, Culture and Politics by Angela Davis and This Bridge Called My Back and other feminist anthologies by women of color...I saw that a lot of the same problems with the second-wave were reappearing in riot grrl. But because Bikini Kill and riot grrl were under constant attack, it was hard to voice my critique. A lot of girls were coming to terms with their own sexual abuse, experiencing sexual assault and/or coming out as queer. Additionally, people were attacking us at shows and accusing us of being sexist for excluding men and we were constantly being sexually harassed, so it was not exactly a good time to be critical. The group of women who I know that were involved in riot grrl were very much in need of support and could not handle criticism.

In my own work, back then, I wrote about "being inclusive" and was vaguely calling for solidarity, but made no real, sustained attempt at making that happen. Looking back, I think my idea was that if all girls started bands and created their own media, then everyone would be represented and we'd figure it out eventually. Well...that was a little naive and say the least! What I learned from this, is that, because not everyone has equal access to resources and leisure time, dominant hierarchies will reproduce themselves in the underground as well as the mainstream. This is why I think the Girls Rock Camps are cool, they are actually getting girls access to skills and resources and not just telling them to "start a band", but actually really facilitating the whole process and creating an inclusive, participatory forum where girls define themselves on their own terms and have a voice.

Also, when I was younger I was really into my own scene at the expense of having a very good understanding of how things worked outside of my own personal experience. While "the personal is political" is a good slogan, in reality, when privileged people focus on personal politics and giving voice to their experience, the result is a limited, privileged version of the world. In other words, advocating for people to 'represent themselves' is not always the best strategy. White people need to address racism and be accountable, just as men need to address sexism and be accountable for how it manifests itself in their work. So live and learn I guess.

I also think it's important to remember the girls of color who were involved in riot grrl/90's punk rock feminism, such as Amy, Emily and Wendy from Emily's Sassy Lime, Mimi Nguyen from Evolution of a Race Riot (who you already mentioned), Sabrina Margarita from Bamboo Girl, Dasha Bikceem from Gunk, Phyllis Forbes from Raooul/The Tourettes, Akiko Carver, Cindy Hales... to name a few off the top of my head. I realize these are just names and maybe not that helpful, but I think it's important not to generalize that riot grrl was "white, straight, middle class"' bla bla bla, when there were a lot of queer girls involved and definitely some working class/poor girls and/or girls of color there from the beginning.

I guess it might seem weird to create this kind of a list, but at the risk of sounding tokenistic or reductionist, really it's more important not to erase this history by excluding these names off the official record of what happened. I'm thinking about how I really needed lists of feminists or women in punk in order to feel less crazy as a teen in a male-dominated punk scene. Those names would give me a sense that I was not alone and that I was not isolated in my experience, that people had come before me. I think when you are feeling marginalized or excluded that having this kind of a list can be really vital to your cultural survival as a source of legitimacy and inspiration.

I guess I'll have to think more about this in the future, as this question has come up every time I've spoken publicly on riot grrl and I'm sure it's going to always be one of the central things people are interested in talking about. It would be cool if there was some writing on this to point people towards that was not super academic and subsequently inaccessible to people outside of "the academy". Or perhaps that is something I will have to write myself, which will require further research and theoretical work.

So anyhow, I guess this letter brought up a lot of questions and reminded me of one of my central motivations here. I will use this as a space to list resources/links related to anti-racist feminisms and talk about issues/concerns that go beyond the limits of my own personal experience. This is where books can be extremely useful as learning tools.

To start with, here are two resources that I have recently come across:


"Make/shift magazine creates and documents contemporary feminist culture and action by publishing journalism, critical analysis, and visual and text art. Made by an editorial collective committed to antiracist, transnational, and queer perspectives, make/shift embraces the multiple and shifting identities of feminist communities. We know there’s exciting work being done in various spaces and forms by people seriously and playfully resisting and creating alternatives to systematic oppression. Make/shift exists to represent, participate in, critique, provoke, and inspire more of that good work."


Women of Color and Feminism by Maythee Rojas

"In this seventh installment of the Seal Studies series, author and professor Maythee Rojas offers a look at the intricate crossroads of being a woman of color. Women of Color and Feminism tackles the question of how women of color experience feminism, and how race and culture can alter this experience. Rojas explores the feminist woman of colors identity and how it relates to mainstream feminism. Through stories and profiles of historical women of color (including Josefa Loaiza, Hua Mulan, and Sahaykwisa), discussion of the arts, and a look at the feminist groups and icons of today, Rojas examines what it means to be both a woman of color and a feminist in a multicultural world. Covering a range of topics, including sexuality, gender politics, violence, stereotypes, reproductive rights, and the contrasts within race and class dimensions, Women of Color and Feminism offers a far-reaching view of this multilayered identity.

A powerful study, Women of Color and Feminism strives to rewrite race and feminism, encouraging women to “take back the body” in a world of new activism. Women of Color and Feminism encourages a broader conversation, creating a discourse of feminism within ethnic studies, and explores how women of color are bridging this gap."

Please feel free to list your own resources and links in the comments.

I will talk more about what "transnational" means as it relates to feminisms in future posts.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives

Feminist Theory Reader: Local & Global Perspectives, 2nd Edition

Edited by Carole R. McCann and Seung-kyung Kim

Routledge Press, 2010

This came in the mail today, it was kind of pricey, but I was lucky to find a used copy.

I saw it on a syllabus for a recent feminist theory class that was taught at Evergreen. I wish I had taken the class, so I decided to order the book and read along. They started with bell hooks Feminism is for Everybody, so I re-visited that over the weekend. I have read it a few times already. I guess I'll post about that some more later. I'm excited to read the intro to the Feminist Theory Reader tonight.

In addition to selections from this book, the class was assigned readings from a packet and Feminist Thought by Stephanie Tong, which I have also ordered.

I figure it will take me awhile to work my way through this stuff, but I've read much of it before and was in a class recently (2006-7) that covered similar ground, so it shouldn't be too overwhelming.

Lately I've been thinking about ways I could try and help make feminist theory more accessible to a wider audience. Getting to study it in college was a privilege and I would like to be able to share what I have learned. I'm not sure how best to approach this, but since I am reading this stuff anyhow and decided to keep a journal, I might as well share some of my thoughts here.

Ideally, feminist theory should not be read in isolation, but in a group setting with discussion. In the past I have tried to organize a feminist theory study group outside of school, but people get busy and it's hard to keep it going for longer than a few months at a time. It would be cool to find an online study group, but so far no luck. Comments are turned on, so please read along if you feel like it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What is feminism?

"Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression."

-bell hooks, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center

When people ask me what feminism is, I often use this definition.

Naturally it brings up additional questions, such as "What is sexism?","What is the difference between sexism and sexist exploition? How is oppression defined?" I think that is good. When people have definitions that force them to think critically and ask questions, they seek out more information, which encourages them to interrogate their own assumptions, do research and have conversations.

I also like that this quote defines feminism as a movement rather than a lifestyle. It clarifies that some kind of action must be taken in order to be a feminist. Feminism is not as simple as claiming an identity or set of values or life-style choices. Feminism is about taking part in a political movement with a clear aim.

When people ask me what it means to be a feminist (usually guys ask this) I re-frame the question by talking about what feminism is, because "being a feminist" implies individuality and feminism implies participating in a group. Anytime the focus is on "being" it sounds passive and feminism is not passive. It is rooted in action, or as bell hooks says, movement.

I want to acknowledge that claiming a political identity can be a strategic action, but if we are being strategic then we should focus on what it is that we want to happen. A political identity is not an end-in-itself, it is a basis for solidarity.

When people ask me to define riot grrl I try to discuss the actions and strategies that were utilized and frame my answer in a way that restates our goal, which was to challenge patriarchal gender constructions by creating a decentralized, participatory, feminist culture of resistance.

In other words, the goal was to change the world.

But really, bell hooks says it best:

"Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression."

riot grrl was a small part of that larger movement.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Feminist Theory Journal

I am reading a bunch of feminist theory right now and decided to keep a journal here. Stay tuned.