The emergence of anti-racist feminism

2014-09-12 08:54

The combination of antiracism and feminism is not by any means new. Yet in Sweden the whiteness norm was not seriously questioned until the 21st century. The murder of Fadime Sahindal and the debate around honour-related violence were two important factors behind this development.

Criticised whiteness norms in feminism

On 21 January 2002, Fadime Sahindal was shot to death by her father in her home in Uppsala. The murder sent shockwaves throughout the nation. Many Swedes knew of the young woman, who so bravely had described her situation, how she had been punished for wanting to choose her own partner and for making her own choices in life. A heated debate about honour-related violence ensued in Sweden.

Gudrun Schyman, at the time leader of the Left Party, said in her infamous ‘Taliban speech’ that: ‘Discrimination and harassment may look different depending on where you are. But it’s always the same norm, same structure, same pattern, whether you are in the Taliban’s Afghanistan or here in Sweden.

‘Gudrun Schyman was already back then big on anti-racism. The speech stirred up a lot of controversy’, says Irene Molina, Professor of Cultural Geography at Uppsala University.

Feminists and gender researchers had different opinions about the speech. Some established feminists claimed that Sweden’s immigration had caused a backlash for gender equality in the country. Irene Molina and other post-colonial feminists heavily criticised this standpoint, saying that it was rooted in whiteness norms.

‘We were extremely upset and wrote debate articles’, says Molina.

That same year, Molina and the two researchers Paulina de los Reyes and Diana Mulinari published their anthology Maktens (o)lika förklädnader – kön, klass och etnicitet i det moderna Sverige. The book both criticised the white mainstream feminism and introduced the intersectionality concept in Sweden.

‘We had met at a gender research conference in Gothenburg and complained that it was such a white forum. I think we were the only gender researchers with non-European background. We were also the only ones who raised the issue of ethnicity’, says Molina.

The three researchers were critical of other gender researchers’ fixation with the white middle class and wanted to bring attention to the treatment of women with foreign background as if they were invisible. They also requested a queer perspective and a discussion on class. This was addressed in the book.

‘Our book caused a lot of commotion in academia and became a real bestseller. I think the sixth or seventh edition has been printed at this point. Some older, established gender researchers took the criticism very personally’, says Molina.

Women’s oppression comes in different forms

Molina says that anti-racist feminism is deeply rooted in post-colonial theory. Its proponents, for example Chandra Mohanty, criticised the simplified view in Western feminism where women in the third world have been considered a homogenous category. Instead she emphasised that the vast cultural diversity in these countries leads to oppression of women in many different shapes and forms.

‘The criticism we raised in Sweden was directly linked to post-colonial feminism. This school of thought includes theories about what racism is. It concludes that racism is everywhere and offers tools for analysis’.

Molina says that antiracist and feminist circles have gained a lot of momentum since 2002. Today there is a new generation of feminists who will not shy away from making clear demands, whether it concerns the housing situation, the labour market or media. At the same time, Molina feels that the debate in academia has stalled.

‘The concept of intersectionality has become well-established and you can apply for grants for intersectionality research. This was impossible in the beginning of the millennia. But I think the theoretical discussion has lost strength. Today most activity can be found outside the universities’.

Immigrant associations are important seedbeds

Diana Mulinari, Professor of Gender Studies at Lund University, feels that the book sparked a both vital and vibrant debate. She says that at that time, the perspective within feminism that race is a fundamental power relation was new. However, she stresses that the struggle to include these issues on the agenda started long before 2002. According to Mulinari, the early immigrant associations, which were organised to advance immigrant issues in Swedish society, comprise an important source for the anti-racist feminist movement.

‘The first criticism of the view of the female immigrant as a victim of an oppressive culture was formed in that context. These organisations consisted of migrants who moved here to work, such as women who assembled cars at Volvo’.

Another group that Mulinari wants to point to is women who came to Sweden as refugees with a background in the struggle against imperialism in the third world.

‘They carried anti-colonial and anti-capitalist visions and brought up issues such as women’s rights in various forums. I think these groups laid the groundwork for anti-racist feminism’, says Mulinari.

Author Ida Måwe. Translation: Debbie Axlid
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