Feminist Conversations is a weekly column at Feminists For Choice. We spotlight feminist activists from across the interwebs to find out what feminism means to them. Today we’re talking to Yasmin Nair. Yasmin is a Chicago-based writer, activist, academic, and commentator whose work has appeared in publications like GLQ, The Progressive, make/shift, The Bilerico Project, Windy City Times, Bitch, Maximum Rock’n’Roll, and No More Potlucks. She is part of the editorial collective Against Equality and a member of the Chicago grassroots organization Gender JUST (Justice United for Societal Transformation). Nair’s work can be found at www.yasminnair.net.
1. When did you first call yourself a feminist, and what contributed to the decision?
That’s an interesting question because I don’t often refer to myself as a feminist, for reasons I’ll go into in a minute. The word does help to describe my sense of gender politics, and it provides a counterpoint in situations where gender is clearly an unspoken and unacknowledged factor.
I don’t know if I necessarily had an “aha” moment where I recognized myself as a feminist or identified as one. That being said, there have been moments when I have been made aware of the sexism that pervades the world. I once took a computer programming class run by an incredibly sexist man, and there were only two in the class. The men were really friendly until it became apparent that I was kicking their ass, frankly, and the instructor went into a panic and tried to change the grading scale so that I wouldn’t be at the top of the class. So, yes, moments like that have reminded me of the ways in which my gender is perceived as less than or threatening but my response has simply been to, well, kick ass, and fight back.
I see that kind of gender dynamics even in the organizing I do. I’ve organized a lot of events and forums and actions, and there is, as you know, a great deal of thankless work that needs to be done months in advance. Far too often, the majority of the organizing committee ends up being women and the men—even if they’re gay/queer—who show up have tended to try to slide away from their responsibilities and leave the work to us “girls” (whether trans or cisgender)—and then tried to take the credit.
Then there are the endless ways in which I’m constantly reminded of how much more men are paid in comparison to women or simply have more access to resources, even in the supposedly hippy-dippy lefty-progressive world of social justice and writing that I inhabit. I won’t even begin to go into the ingrained sexism in academia where, unfortunately, gender differences in terms of matters like tenure and research resources and time are being dealt with by reinforcing archaic notions of what it means to be a woman (motherhood, family etc.) But that’s a different story for another day.
My politics around marriage have always determined my sense of feminism. I knew, from the age of eight, that marriage, like war in the old slogan, is bad for women and children. I could see, just looking around me, that it meant the disempowerment of entire groups of people. As I grew older, I was able to name that harm in more formal ways but my sense of marriage as an extremely damaging institution—at least the way it’s organized in too many countries—has never changed.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t be a feminist and also be married, but I don’t think the U.S in particular makes it very easy to be both. When you step into a marriage, you immediately step into a host of mandates dictated by the State that immediately begin dividing up your household into segments of power: breadwinner, caretaker, housekeeper, childcare provider. All of that is exacerbated by a State that will not provide adequate support for people via health care for all, married or single, decent public transportation, or childcare. If you’re someone who’s not able to afford all that on your own, your life is a never-ending search for basic resources and for too many people, the choice is between a two-income household or one where someone stays at home and is dependent on the spouse or partner. If you’re single, you’re really screwed because the State provides even fewer resources for you and, besides, considers you unfit for those 1000+ benefits it hands out to married people.
Gay marriage does not change those paradigms – it merely reinforces them, and we can see strong evidence of that in the increasing number of gay couples who are choosing to adopt retrograde patterns of family for reasons that are both economic and ideological. It’s interesting that people always think that same-sex couples couldn’t possibly be sexist because, well, how could two men or two women ever treat each other differently? But gender roles extend beyond the genders of the people and are really about power imbalances. And really, when it comes down to it, sexism is about forcing someone into a relatively powerless or disempowered situation.
So, to answer your question: I’ve always been a feminist, as long as I can remember. While I don’t always identify as such, I’m constantly aware that the principles that word stands for are continually being contested. And in a million different ways, I’m reminded, every day, of the reasons why “feminism,” as troubling and complicated a word as it is, still matters.
2. What does feminism mean to you?
Power, autonomy, and yes, the basics like equal pay for equal work—which we are far from having achieved. But I also think that feminism is meaningless without an attention to other structural questions about economic inequality, or political matters like the war on terror—let’s not forget that we invaded Afghanistan with the ridiculous and trumped-up excuse that we would liberate Afghani women from the Taliban. As for Iraq, we conveniently forget that our decimation of that country’s economy has enabled the rise of a conservative and sexist clergy that did not have such power before 2003.
This kind of direct assault on women’s bodies is supported by privileged women like Laura Bush, who made that utterly specious case for the invasion of Afghanistan in her 2001 radio address, and by the many perhaps well-meaning but utterly credulous American women who today are interested in “helping” or “saving” the women of Iraq without much, if any, criticism of the war machine that caused the problems in the first place.
Earlier, I spoke about the fact that I don’t often use the word “feminist” to identify myself and, frankly, one of the reasons is because the term has been so badly, madly, sadly defined by a certain kind of clueless and relatively privileged woman. I was talking to my Muslim-American friend U. about this piece, and her immediate response was, “I refuse to identify with or as a feminist.” U. is a relatively peaceful sort, but she will actually go hammer and tongs in arguing with the kind of “feminists” we most associate that word with. She simply cannot abide their sense of entitlement and their belief that they know exactly what “feminist” should mean and, worse, what she should do to define herself as such. Frankly, that’s similar to my own experience—I’ve run into too many (mostly white) women who want to fixate on me, with my Muslim first name and my ethnic identity, as an object of rescue. That sense of entitlement extends to so many other arenas—we cannot and should not forget, for instance, the rank racism that came in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s failed bid for the Presidency and the response of women like Geraldine Ferraro who said that Obama benefited from being Black, or the comments of other women that he needed to wait his turn.
I think it’s apparent that “feminism” in this country is both raced and classed—and it’s no wonder that women of color in particular often refuse to use that word or simply don’t think of using it, even when they are clearly inhabiting the world in really interesting, dynamic, and fierce ways that challenge norms of gender and sexuality.
Feminism is meaningless without a keen understanding of how gender/gender identity/queerness is linked to questions of economic and political disempowerment.
3. You often write about class issues. What do you feel the connections are between feminism and issues like poverty, debt, and capitalism?
You can’t be a feminist or someone who thinks through the lens of gender if you don’t also think of those very important issues you raised: poverty, debt, and capitalism.
I’m especially glad you raised the issue of debt, because I’ve been thinking a lot about gender and the housing and foreclosure crisis, and the larger economic crisis in general. Remember the enormous McMansions that went up in the years of the housing boom? Well, I always wondered: who stays home and takes care of them or supervises the enormous staffs required to do so? I’m guessing that, with rare exceptions, the men were not the ones doing the housework.
When the first waves of the crisis hit and the media was busy interviewing people who could no longer afford their homes, one common thread that ran through all the narratives was of men as breadwinners. I can remember being absolutely outraged as, in story after story, “the man” came on the radio or was quoted in a print article about how he had so wanted to be the breadwinner and how being laid off and/or losing the house felt emasculating. I remember thinking, “Really, really? The breadwinner? And did she wash your feet at night?”
The housing and economic crisis has not only exposed the failure of our economic policies, it has shown us that women’s roles are still perceived within archaic and gendered stereotypes. What saddens me are the stories about very young women who clearly thought that the whole house of cards—every pun intended—the entire fiction of homeownership/marriage/kids, was their only path in life. I was recently reading a report on a young woman who married her teenage boyfriend because she got pregnant; they both decided to put their plans of college on hold. Following that was a series of twists and turns as they sank deeper into poverty, along with two young children (they were also anti-abortion). At one point, she told the reporter that much of what had happened to them was because, as she put it, there was never any guidance for young people—it was simply assumed that this was what you did: got married, had kids, and all the rest would just come along. Nobody ever warned them of the economic realities of all that. These kinds of situations are being repeated all over the country—couples everywhere being shuttled by cultural norms and the rapacious banking and housing industries into a “dream” for which they have no real resources.
If feminism had succeeded in making more connections between this kind of economic disempowerment and gender roles—not to mention abortion rights—we would not be seeing so many of these cases. We should also be in the schools teaching young women and men that they do not have to give up their dreams of college, and that marriage and kids are not what define you.
Capitalism rewards institutions and trends like marriage and family and home ownership because that’s the best way for it to gain the most bang for its buck, as it were. Feminism, in its current emphasis on the affective—love, sex, freedom, finding oneself, the rescue of little brown women—fails when it refuses to confront capitalism.
4. You have also written many articles about racism within the queer community, many of which have met with hostility on sites like The Bilerico Project. Why do you keep writing for those sites if the audience reception is so negative?
Ah, yes, those delightful comments on The Bilerico Project and Queercents! Well, first, I should clarify that it’s not just my articles on race but also the ones I’ve written about gay marriage that have inspired such vitriol.
Most of what passes for work on race usually adopts a kumbaya-love-thy-neighbor tone, which does nothing but affirm our wishy-washy feelings about diversity being good for us and learning to respect other cultures. There is, in general, a dearth of good, clear, and genuinely provocative writing on matters of race or, for that matter on topics like queer politics and gay marriage, that actually makes you think (there’s a lot that simply affirms the kumbaya politics I alluded to, but how much of that can you read?). And, of course, except for a small handful of us, there has been very little that is critical of gay marriage—although, I’m happy to say that work is now expanding, in no small part due to the work of the Against Equality collective.
Still, what’s missing is a really hard and close look at the materiality and complexity of race and gender in the gay and lesbian community, which is, at its core, deeply racist, frighteningly misogynistic, and fundamentally conservative. I never really experienced pervasive misogyny until I came into contact with larger numbers of gay men through my journalism in the gay press (my private world tends to be more queer/genderqueer/straight-queer). It’s been an eye-opener. And, yes, the racism is hard to miss, especially in a community that, on the one hand loves to fetishize Arab, Black or Latino men or women as sexual objects but will not hesitate, at the drop of a hat, to demonize their communities as homophobic. We saw that after Prop 8, when gays and lesbians turned on the Black community and blamed it for the passage of the legislation, and we see that today, with the comments about the homophobia of Islam. It never ceases to astonish me that a community which loves to uphold itself as smarter and more well-read than the straight community does not hesitate to engage in the most idiotic and ignorant stereotypes about Muslims. All of this is reflected in the comments on my articles.
The main reason I continue to write despite such naked hostility is that I know the pieces reach an audience, and I know, from looking at the statistics that are not visible to the public, that the number of readers far outweighs the commenters. For instance, my piece on gay marriage and sex has 69 comments so far and, to date, 77,923 views. That’s fairly typical of the ratio of comments to views for most of my pieces. I know, from the many comments I’ve received privately in my inbox or in person, that a lot of people read my work and appreciate the fact that I’m willing to talk openly about matters that the gay community and, frankly, the larger liberal/progressive/lefty community, are unwilling to confront. I’ve also received many, many messages from people telling me that they either changed their minds or were at least more informed after reading something I wrote. People who disagree with me or take issue with what I write are not all as bad as the commenters who show up these days; many of them prefer to remain invisible. I think most people are just too put off by the generally low level of discourse and high level of vitriol to want to engage in a comments thread.
I also think that good writing can have a political effect; it can and does actually change people’s minds and persuade them to think and act differently (and differently does not have to mean the same as me)—whether or not they write comments or tell me about it is not the point.
Also, frankly, I love having entire archives of comments to point people to whenever I want to prove how xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic the gay community can get. Every now and then I’ll send a straight friend or colleague to one or more of my posts and, without fail, they’ll come back to me with shocked eyes saying, “Wow, really, gays can be like that?” I think people have this entirely erroneous perception of gays and lesbians as supremely cultured and polite folk who might, at worst, drop some droll witticisms on my article before sashaying on with champagne flutes in hand. They’re never prepared for the bile they encounter instead.
I’ll also admit that, yes, I actually do find the comments amusing. A fair number of the commenters are actually regulars who just cut and paste the exact same comments on every one of my blogs. I’ve suggested to a few of them that they might actually have a crush on me. Sadly, they’re not really able to think much beyond their seething rage, so I’ve never received a particularly witty response to that.
5. When you’re not rabble rousing, what’s your favorite way to unwind at the end of the day?
Any one of the following: hanging out with my friends, either one-on-one or in small groups; very long walks; reading something unrelated to anything I’m reviewing or researching; or watching a movie. I also have an inordinate number of hobbies, ranging from cross-stitch to collage, all of which I pursue with more enthusiasm than perseverance. But I’m fine with that: I realized a while back that the definition of a hobby is something that gives you pleasure in the process, and I don’t have to produce a frame-worthy piece of art every time I put glue to paper.