‘Spaces open to all women’ doesn't equal ‘spaces safe for all women’

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It has happened to all women I know; You tell a man about something that happened to you, or something that keeps happening to you, because you are a woman. The man reacts with surprise or suspicion, telling you that it was probably a one-time incident caused by this one bad guy, or maybe you are just overreacting? Maybe it was just a misunderstanding? Or, it could probably have happened to a man as well.

Encounters like these are exhausting and emotionally draining. As a woman you have to keep telling the same stories over and over again; to not forget, to attest that these unjust events keep happening, and to insist that we need to do more to stop them. And still, you are not believed, not taken seriously, not listened to.

Sometimes, then, it feels good to share stories and experiences in a space only for women. Other women know what you are talking about, they have been there and they have your back. There is no need for you to constantly defend yourself, there is no need for you to relive every detail of your personal trauma to be believed. They know. They listen. They believe you.

Or do they?

A few weeks ago I went to a workshop on critical feminism. The workshop started with a short input given by a Black woman based on her current Ph.D. research, and it set a great starting point for talking about the intersections of race and gender in Europe. Unfortunately, the important discussions we could have had were cut short by some White women refusing to listen to and believe Black women and Women of Colour.

During the open discussion, a WoC raised the topic of the lack of representation of BPoC in European films and TV shows – both behind and in front of the camera. This is a very real and very important issue. For people to never get to see people who look like them – and when they do it is often in the forms of stereotypes and one-dimensional characters – is directly harmful to their personal development and self-esteem. Lack of representation, or constant one-sided representations, also produces and reproduces racist narratives and structures embedded in our society.

However, instead of recognizing this, one White woman in the group was quick to point out that she was currently watching a show where one of the main characters, a policeman, is played by a Man of Colour. She just thought this was important to mention, because in her view things have really changed a lot over the past years, and lack of representation is not really such a big issue anymore.

First of all, it is still a big issue — the majority of people on TV, in other media, books, magazines and so on are still White. Secondly, the White woman who mentioned the policeman in this case seems to take for granted that Black Women and Women of Colour should feel fully represented by Men of Colour.

The (White) feminist movement has a long history of treating sexism and racism as two separate systems of oppression, ignoring all the ways in which they intersect. More so, while White women have been at the center of attention when talking about sexism, Black men have been the focus in talks about racism. What about Black Women and Women of Colour?

Their experiences and lived realities have been ignored. And they still are.

In the same workshop, a Black woman shared her frustration about how Black bodies are hyper-sexualized by White men, and that she was sick of being asked “how much do you charge?” in her everyday life moving about the city. Walking home from the bar at night or sipping coffee with her friends at noon – men would approach her at all times.

While one White woman gasped with surprise, another one asked her what she was wearing. A third insisted that all women experience sexual harassment in public, before quickly moving on to tell a story about a very unpleasant experience she recently had on the bus.

Instead of really listening to the Black woman’s story and acknowledge how racism and sexism both play a part in shaping her experience, these White women attempted to make sense of the experience within the frameworks of their own lived realities. They are surprised because they have not encountered this themselves (and have not bothered to listen to the stories of Black women before, because if they had this would be nothing new), but still they work hard to remove the racial factor from the experience. One woman tries to blame her for what happened by asking about her clothes, and another one tries to equate what happened to what she herself experienced on the bus — arguing that it is only related to gender, not race.

But the Black Woman is constantly being mistaken for a sex worker* because she is a woman and because she is Black. White people have a long history of sexualizing and exoticizing Black women and Women of Colour, constructing them as objects to be used for the pleasure of White men. For her, then, racism is a central part of how she experiences being a woman, just as sexism is a central aspect of how she experiences being Black. The two cannot be separated.

What these incidents clearly show is that spaces open to ALL women are far from safe for ALL women. As White women we continue to center our own experiences, erasing stories that do not fit our ‘knowledge’ of what it means to be a woman.

I believe that there can be great power in women coming together to support each other and to unite in the fight against sexism, but we will only be successful if we support each other and recognize the different experiences of ALL women – not only white, middle-class/rich, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled women. To emphasize the complexities of our experiences and how they are shaped by other social positions (such as race, class, sexual orientation, etc.), will only strengthen our cause, not weaken it.

But from my experience, we still have a long way to go, and I think it’s pretty clear where the main responsibility for working towards this needed change lies.

*I first published this story using the term ‘prostitute’. After learning more about the term and learning that many sex workers find this term stigmatizing, I changed it to ‘sex worker’.

Long-time-reader and ‘baby writer’ focusing on social justice issues. Driven by the need to learn from and promote silenced narratives.