My feminism is useless if it isn’t accessible

The beautiful sunflower that is Gayatri Spivak
The beautiful sunflower that is Gayatri Spivak

I learnt my feminism from my English Literature degree. The more Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Angela Carter, Gayatri Spivak and Helene Cixous I read, the more I became invested in feminism.

I’m going to go ahead and put it out there that that isn’t how most people come to feminism. I was lucky enough to be able to go to university and have those experiences and it does mean that my feminism is rooted in academia. I do, however, spend just as much time on Tumblr and Twitter seeing people articulate their feminism in different ways, but, my understanding of how feminism works for me (and how I articulate that) comes solidly from feminist scholarship.

All too often, mainstream media frames feminism as a static, singular movement but, happily, the acknowledgement of different forms of feminism are moving to the forefront. Marxist feminism, Socialist feminism, Queer feminism and feminisms from races, religions and geographical areas (black feminism, Muslim feminism, South Asian feminism) are versions of feminism that have identified the need to address certain erasures in the movement.

This demonstrates the capacity (and necessity) for feminism to be able to bring in different kinds of people from different experiences of life. Feminism, like most movements, has a long history of privileging the voices of able, cis-gender, heterosexual, middle class women, and sometimes even men, before it will admit “other” women.

Academia has always had a problem with the same kind of elitism, despite the fact that concepts of academic origin usually trickle down into more mainstream or accessible media. The manner in which that trickle down happens is changing as global communities can participate in information exchange.

Feminism, whatever form or interpretation it takes, is useless if it isn’t accessible. 

This includes accessibilty for poor people and, whilst accessibility has to include people of colour, LGBT people and people in the Global South, it’s no secret that people with those identity categories are usually poorer.

For example, I’m about to start a PhD in researching Desi women. My mum never went to any kind of school, she’s worked all her life and yet pushed myself and my siblings to have the kind of education she could never even dream of. The problem we’ve always had is that my Punjabi isn’t good enough for me to communicate concepts both of us are only just discovering, and her English isn’t good enough for the reverse to happen. So what happens is a synthesis of the two which involves a lot of crossed wires.

Given how differently our lives have panned out, it would be silly at best and fucking stupidly ungrateful at worst for me to be writing blog posts and essays about feminism if it doesn’t do anything for my mum.

While that example has the personal element of my mum pushing me to educate myself, it also demonstrates how me writing about Pakistani and/or Desi women is pointless and actively terrible if:

  • those things aren’t accessible to those women
  • those things aren’t communicated clearly and effectively
  • those things aren’t applicable to the people you’re writing about (you can’t capture everyone’s experiences all the time, but you can write powerfully or clearly about your own)

Whilst traditional academia is rooted in privilege, feminist academia is, by its nature, on the margins. Feminist scholarship and feminist methods of working have to react against traditional academia. Feminist academia operates on many of these same principles as traditional academia.

Any version of feminism is entirely bullshit if it isn’t inclusive and accessible. Feminist academia does have a tendency to criticise traditional academia at a higher rate than occurs in mainstream academia but, it needs to be remembered, that many of those feminist academics are only in their positions because of the privileges they have worked with.

Accessible feminist academia has to be centred on, at its very core, making texts accessible for people caught in the lower rungs of the social ladder. That is, of course, infinitely easier said than done. Electronic downloads and the existence of Kindles help a lot, but, the gatekeepers of academia and learning are still those involved with higher education institutions and subscription based academic journals.

The material element of academia becoming more accessible involves sweeping structural changes and a change in mindset when approaching the democratisation of information. The education system in the West is built to benefit those at the very top, keeping them in research grants and education opportunities, whilst researching people unlike them. That is a fairly sweeping statement, especially bearing in mind that people from minority backgrounds are slowly being allowed the opportunity to reach those higher standards, but it is, for the most part, accurate.

An overhaul in approach to information sharing wouldn’t just mean changing academia but changing how we approach education as a whole.

The onus is also on those of us carrying out research to adapt our outlook to one that champions sharing information and ideas where anyone can to get them. If feminist ideas are largely formed and shared exclusively by people with the most power, they’re not worth anything. If those ideas can’t be developed by people who don’t hold the most power in academia, or by people outside of academia, then they stagnate. They carry on being passed between the people at the top, while everyone else doesn’t even get a look-in.

Changing our attitudes to education involves changing who we see as academic; diversity needs to come from within academia so white and middle class people aren’t the only ones with a seat at the table. My mum can talk intelligently and critically about the partition of India and Pakistan better than most white academics who specialise in the topic. I’d rather hear what she and South Asian academics have to say. This is not a question of authenticity, but of a different kind of perspective than we’re used to hearing echo the loudest.

If feminism is truly a fluid journey where the more experiences you have the more you develop as a person, and your feminism along with you, then nobody is a “good” feminist. There is always something that you can do better and there is always something about your feminism that you can learn. There is no final level-up where you can achieve Ultimate Feminist Status.

Instead, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Feminist academia needs to take part in that and accessibility is at the centre of that – your revolution ain’t shit if everybody can’t get to it.


Further reading:

Just one recommendation this time, Media Diversified has a directory of experts for writing, TV and radio. The organisation work to demand more diverse representation in media products and is an excellent source for different perspectives:

http://directory.mediadiversified.org/

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