My feminism will always be unfinished
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
by Sara Abbas
Feminism for me is a reminder that no matter what life throws at me, I want to understand more, live as close to the truth as I know it, and always show up for womxn who face multiple and intersecting oppressions.
My feminism is a work in progress. There has been no single moment of arrival or of epiphany, but multiple ones that have set me on new paths.
One thing that I’ve learned is not just what my feminism is about, but what it rejects. I reject feminisms that strip away gender and sex from their relationship(s) to other forms of structural violence. Gender oppression so often intersects with other forms of oppression that it really baffles me when self-professed feminists understand sexism but fail to understand racism, or how the two build on and feed off each another.
Many feminists speak of intersectionality, but don’t actually engage with it in their practice. While I understand that there are multiple feminisms, —probably as many as there are feminists—as a political project, feminism can only be emancipatory if it is also anti-racist and anti-capitalist; and it has to be so in its practices, not just its discourses.
This is a hard job for all of us, myself included, but it is necessary, because womxn don’t experience the world in discrete boxes. And also because intersectionality has become increasingly detached from its radical roots in the African-American feminist tradition, where it was born as part of an emancipatory project.
My feminism has at its heart the recognition that colonialism, settler colonialism, imperialism, and the enslavement of Africans radically reshaped the world. This is by no means ancient history; it continues to determine who lives and who dies, through trade regimes, militarism, structural racism, sexualized violence, and exclusion. “Feminism must be anti-colonial” might sound like a banal statement, one with which most feminists would agree, but I’ve been surprised how threatening it is for some in certain contexts.
For example, over the last few years living in Berlin, I’ve been met with hostility, even in some leftist feminist circles, for stating what to me is a simple fact—that the occupation of Palestinian Territories is modern-day apartheid, and that we can’t call ourselves feminists if we don’t stand with Palestinian womxn’s dual struggle: against the brutality of the Israeli state’s occupation, and against norms within Palestinian society that subordinate womxn.
I was born in Khartoum, Sudan, and spent the first eleven years of my life there. Arabic was the first language I learned. There must’ve been a word in Arabic for “feminism” then, but as a child, I doubt I ever heard it. Today I know the word but it still feels odd on my tongue. I’m getting more used to saying “nasawiya”, but a twinge of discomfort remains; it still feels a little alien. As we’re seeing in the recent revolutions in Sudan, Lebanon, Chile, and elsewhere, feminism is being made into a powerful tool for emancipation through struggle, and feminists are exporting their own conceptions of it, that are powerful.
As a feminist, my main concerns are how capitalism reinforces and creates racialized gender hierarchies, how poverty makes womxn more vulnerable to abuse, the murderous border regimes that are currently in place, and how womxn in the global South and working-class womxn of colour in the global North are treated as disposable.
My feminism also asserts that Black womxn’s lives matter, not just in the context of the U.S. and Europe, but also in Sudan. In the U.S., I am Black, but in Sudan, other womxn are Black, since my ethnicity translates to racial privilege in that context. There, the oppression of Black women is in part done in my name. Racial oppression shifts across time and space, since there is no one racism, but rather racisms. I’ve realized that my own understanding of my role as a feminist also has to shift if it is to stay relevant in the multiple spaces I inhabit.
One of the things that fascinates me the most is the world of children, the glimpses they get of adult life, and the fragmented nature of their access to knowledge about the wider world. It is this fragmentation and partial access that we associate with childhood innocence. I think a lot about this when I see the situation of so many children in the world, violently pushed into the market by poverty. So many girls are not just forced into work, but into marriage and the reproductive sphere, or even sexual enslavement. They learn so early that in this world, you are as valuable as what your hands can make or your womb can produce, and that even if you can produce, your labour will be stolen.
Today, I embrace the term feminist, but it wasn’t always so. The politically active women in my childhood, those who worked to defend other women, didn’t use many labels to describe themselves. One of my early memories of my mother is from the period leading up to the 1985 intifada in Sudan, the mass uprising which toppled the sixteen-year military dictatorship of Ja’afar Nimeri. My mother is the first feminist I knew. Memories are tricky of course, but what often matters is not the event itself but how we remember it.
What I remember is finding my mother sitting in her room, sewing a large banner for one of the protests that had been planned. The curtains were drawn because this was dangerous work. Another time, I remember seeing her sneaking off with a neighbour, a woman whose husband had just been arrested by state security, to bury incriminating documents so that they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.
My father, a university lecturer, was the political activist in the family, a trade unionist who worked to overthrow the regime. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t speak of herself as an activist. Women like my mother and her neighbour were doing dangerous political work, but most of it was invisible—much like the care work they performed at home. They supported each other not just through “political” activity, but by helping each other take care of children, by lending each other things when times were tough, and by listening.
There must have been tens of thousands if not millions of Sudanese women like my mother and her neighbour, most of whom were in far worse economic situations than they were. Those women are the ones who kept both the families and the resistance going. My first feminism was therefore a feeling that the sky isn’t held up by the Greek God Atlas, but rather by women like my mother.
When it comes to political identity, I really believe that one has to try and be honest in order to evolve. And to be honest, we must occasionally go to that place inside us where we are least comfortable. Those places of comfort and discomfort remind us of how we grew up and the structures we grew up in—the extent to which they shaped us. I’ve had to confront myself over the years, starting from my late teens, in order to expand my notion of gender and my understanding of it as both constructed and fluid.
My mother is still the most important feminist influence in my life, but there is sometimes a dynamic between us where my feminism feels to her like an indictment of her own understanding of the world and of the sacrifices she made. I know that there is no way I would have gotten as far in my consciousness without her, but my feminism has also departed from hers in significant ways.
To give what to me is an important example, the home culture I grew up in was mostly quietly homophobic. This issue only came up once we migrated to the U.S. following the 1989 military coup d’état in Sudan. My sisters and I were given the impression that homosexuality, or any kind of queerness for that matter, is a western thing that should be rejected as a “lifestyle choice”.
My formal education in New York City, because it was also devoid of any queer perspectives, didn’t help challenge this impression. The schools I went to were also homophobic; I don’t remember a single kid who was “out”, which of course meant that kids did not feel safe enough to be open about themselves in that atmosphere. It didn’t bother me and I hardly paid any attention to it.
What helped me to begin to grapple with this was neither school nor books, but curiosity and a desire to form human relationships. It was encounters at university with womxn activists and non-activists who identified as queer that changed me and, later in life, made me an ally. My mother had raised me to be open to people—even if that openness ended up leading me down paths she would have preferred, perhaps, that I never tread. Those parts of my feminism that I gained through struggle “against” the self I was given—by school, family, and even to an extent friends—are the parts I value the most.
I continue to try and educate myself, still mostly through human relationships, but now also by reading. What I find helpful when I am unclear about things is to try and put my value system front and centre. I really believe that we must push ourselves to show up and stand up for oppressed communities, even if we feel out of place or uncomfortable. Solidarity breeds understanding, it’s not only the other way around.
Feminism for me is a reminder that no matter what life throws at me, I want to understand more, live as close to the truth as I know it, and always show up for womxn who face multiple and intersecting oppressions. My understanding of truth is constantly evolving, and as a person, my courage still falls short of my convictions. This is why my feminism will always be unfinished.
Author: Sara Abbas is a Sudanese-American feminist and political scientist. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin.
The text was originally published in Diversity on Common Ground. Ten Perspectives on Contemporary Feminism. Reproduced with permission from the author and the rosa luxemburg stiftung.