Ailbhe Ni Earrain reports on the BHM Women of Colour in Feminism panel event
The final event in the #HERstory series as part of Black History Month took place at UCL on Friday 17th October. The panel event, called Women of Colour in Feminism, explored today’s feminist movement from an intersectional perspective. Intersectionality refers to the understanding of how different forms of oppression, such as sexism and racism, interact. The discussion was led by Hajera Begum, UCLU’s Black and Minority Ethnic Students’ Officer.
The panellists began by introducing themselves and explaining how they became interested in feminism. Panellist Hana Riaz noticed during her studies at SOAS that the feminist spaces at her university tended to be “white and imperialistic”, finding any anti-racism group male-dominated and any feminism group Eurocentric. She developed Body Narratives, an organization that provides a platform for women of colour to share their stories and experiences and to discuss the issues they face.
“We cannot let our future be built by people who do not recognise us at all”
Vimbai Dzimwasha, a recent UCL graduate who was involved in UCLU’s Women’s Network, produces a podcast with her friend called Two Black Girls, documenting their lives as black girls living in London. She spoke about her struggle with the definition of identity and her reluctance for using labels. Her interest in feminism relates to her passion for sport and the sexism in the sporting industry. She gave examples such as female boxers having to wear skirts instead of shorts and how females in all professional sports are pressured to wear tighter clothing. These both contribute to the ideology that a woman has to look “pretty” even when playing sport, something which men in sport never even have to consider. Dzimwasha also stressed that she would rather be considered “pro-woman” rather than “feminist,” perhaps as the term “feminist” has been manipulated by opponents to be synonymous with man-hating.
Susuana Antubam, the NUS National Women’s Officer, was also present. She, too, had noticed that groups at Royal Hollway, where she went to university, tended to be male-dominated, and that a majority of her lecturers were male and white. She created the position of women’s officer at Royal Holloway and was a leading figure in I Heart Consent, the national consent education campaign.
The final panellist was Camille Kumar, who has worked in the sector of preventing violence against women and girls for the past 10 years. Kumar experienced a similar need for a focus on women of colour in feminism in Australia, where she grew up. She brought a unique perspective to the panel saying that she had experienced life both as a product of colonisation and as a coloniser by moving from her native country to Australia.
One of the most controversial topics concerning women of colour concerns the appropriate terms to use when referring to their identity. BME (Black Minority Ethnic) seems to have become most common. In response to this issue, Dzimwasha emphasised that it is more important to be active in making a difference rather than worrying about what word to use. Dzimwasha went on to joke that she “became black when I landed in Heathrow,” as race had never been a type of identity in her native country. She elaborated by describing “black” as a political mindset, meaning that women of colour are aware of injustices whether they be a result of colonisation, apartheid, etc.
Kumar also described her resistance to being labelled black, as she finds the label to be a form of internalised racism, which Dzimwasha reiterated by saying that it was essential to be mindful that blackness is not universal.
With regards to BME spaces for women, all panellists agreed that it was important that these spaces be only for BME women, as it is difficult for them to access a space like this anywhere else.
To motivate the younger generation to take an interest, Riaz stated that it is important to equip girls with the tools to be able to challenge their oppressors, and not to let people assign labels to them. All panellists agreed that their fellow women of colour should never think they are being “over-sensitive,” and that if they witness or experience an injustice they should definitely voice their opinion.
When the floor opened to the audience, one member described an incident during which her white dissertation supervisor told her that her anthropology dissertation on women of colour had “too much of an activist tone,” to which Riaz replied: “What is academia without activism?” This then raised the controversial question of who has the authority to talk about race.
Another audience member described how she was the only black female coder in her class. She had come to the conclusion that the Internet, the most powerful tool of influence and knowledge in the world, was built by white, privileged men. Her statement, “We cannot let our future be built by people who do not recognise us at all”, earned her a well-deserved round of applause from the audience.
The mutual sentiment held by the panellists and the audience at the end of the discussion was that we must work to encourage and equip women to stay in their situation and attempt to change and improve their situation, rather than running away from non-black spaces in search of more tolerant environment.
Black History Month events continue at UCLU for one more week. To participate in the remaining events, check out the website.
Featured image credit: Alibhe Ni Earrain