Who can call themselves anti-racist feminists?

2014-09-25 08:51

The anti-racist feminist movement is growing and raising its voice. Discussions on racism and whiteness are becoming increasingly common in newspapers, on the internet and in social media.
- We have a different debate today than just three years ago, says Tobias Hübinette, researcher at the Multicultural Centre.

“When looking at the world around us, we find that we’re not included in the public space. When it comes to feminism and anti-racism, there always seems to be somebody else’s outlook when stories are told and problems formulated. An outlook with no experience of meeting the world with a body that exists on other people’s terms.”

These are the words of the people behind the Swedish website ‘Rummet’, launched January 2014. The site is aimed to provide a safe zone for individuals with personal experience of racism. The initiative has received recognition in mainstream media, and liberals have criticised it for being separatist. Rummet is just one example of how anti-racist feminism is acted out.

‘Another example is the political party Feminist Initiative, which is not only pro-feminism but also explicitly anti-racist’, says Tobias Hübinette.

According to Hübinette, the upswing of anti-racist feminism can be attributed to the presence of a movement focusing on these issues. In the past, the link between racism and feminism has been found mainly in academia, within postcolonial feminist research.

‘Today, Sweden has a large group of people who despite being born and raised in Sweden are often not considered to be fully Swedish because they aren’t white. They speak good Swedish, have Swedish references and know their way around. Now they have found a voice and are making their presence known in the public space’.

Racist and fascist political parties have in recent years increased in popularity in both Sweden and the rest of Europe. According to Diana Mulinari, professor in gender studies at Lund University, the emergence of the anti-racist feminist movement is a response to this development.

‘A lot of people feel threatened and are thinking about when they should leave Europe. But their fears and knowledge about the racism they’re facing have not been taken seriously. These political parties are a threat not only to migrants but also to feminism as such’.

Mulinari says that the parliamentary democratic system has had problems responding to this threat since similar sentiments can be found also in other political parties. The Sweden Democrats, a flourishing Swedish political party commonly accused of being racist, are really not all that unique when they describe migrants as a problem or criminalise Muslims. Instead, says Mulinari, the Sweden Democrats merely represent a radical version of an age-old Swedish public debate. She believes that the political climate is forcing people to take to the streets in protest.

‘Nobody enjoys picketing every Saturday. I think Athena Farrokhzad, the poet, expressed it well in a radio programme last summer when she said that she would like to talk about the trees – but can’t. That’s so true. The situation is forcing us to act’.

Movement with a utopian vision

Hübinette has similar thoughts. He believes that Sweden is on a clear path to a growing divide between whites and non-whites. Last summer, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) presented a report on their members’ working conditions. Blue collar women have traditionally been a vulnerable group in the labour market as they have faced high levels of part-time work and job insecurity.

‘The study confirmed this, but also that the working conditions have improved for white, Swedish women. Today it’s women with non-European backgrounds that are worst off. This is a relatively new development’.

According to Hübinette, the statistics show that the pay gap between women and men in Sweden is about 10 per cent. He believes that most of this difference can be attributed to race.

‘Similar studies in the U.S. and the U.K. have shown that up to 90 per cent of the gender pay gap can be explained based on race’.

Both Hübinette and Mulinari say that today’s anti-racist feminist movement is characterised by diversity. Several different orientations are gathered under the same umbrella.

‘That’s what makes it so strong. I hope research will look closer at this and identify different practices, not least which agenda an anti-racist socialist feminism opens up for’, says Mulinari.

She thinks that the very concept of anti-racist feminism should be critically examined and discussed in academia and politics. There is currently a lack of agreement in Sweden on what anti-racism really is, and there is hardly any debate on a definition, according to Diana Mulinari.

‘What does it mean to be against racism? This is a poor way of identifying a movement that’s pursuing a utopian vision’.

Personally she feels that some of the many burning issues for the anti-racist feminism are the tension between own experience of racism and the right of interpretation as well as the link between anti-racism and socialism, that is, between inequalities based on the category ‘race’ and inequalities based on capitalism as a system.

‘We have to ask, what is an anti-racist project if we don’t just want some ”black on tops” but rather want to change the world, and how can we work from different positions and meet each other in the streets and in organisations? Do I have the right of way in these issues because I’m non-white or because I’m a non-white socialist?’

Mulinari says that anti-racism is essentially a political project.

‘Its strength lies in its ability to connect with other anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist social movements and other political visions.’

A framework of individual rights

Marie Demker, professor in political science at the University of Gothenburg, says that anti-racist feminism can be found in many different European countries. What sets Sweden apart, however, is that a discussion on human rights and gender equality is already firmly established. This has made it easier to connect feminist issues with for example oppression of minorities.

‘We have a rights-based framing in Sweden. By tradition, we have a stronger focus on autonomy, independence and individual rights than on national and religious values,’ Demker explains.

She says that political parties in Sweden have very similar views on for example abortion and same-sex marriages. The Sweden Democrats, however, represent a brand new dimension in Swedish politics.

‘They represent an entirely new view of the world, a view emphasising national values, race and cultural differences’.

Demker points out that the anti-racist feminist project lacks a certain political colour. The traditional left-right political scale is being challenged by a cultural-liberal dimension. The Sweden Democrats and Feminist Initiative represent the opposite ends of this new scale.

‘This new scale runs contrary to the left-right continuum. Feminist Initiative may have a lot of ideas in common with the Left Party, but that doesn’t mean that they should automatically be placed to the left on the left-right scale. Other dimensions are more important’.

Demker is not certain that anti-racist feminism has to stand in opposition to capitalism or the market economy.

‘In fact, I have a hard time seeing that such an individualised movement could ever be successful with anything but a market economy. These types of movements can’t flourish without a strong focus on individual rights’.

Author Ida Måwe. Translation: Debbie Axlid
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