black women’s movement

black women’s movement
   The black women’s movement emerged during the black and feminist consciousness-raising decades of the 1970s, drawing upon Black Power and antiimperialist national liberation and women’s liberation movements. The black women’s movement gained momentum among black women during the late 1970s and 1980s through demonstrations of collective social and political activism.
   Like the women’s liberation movement, the black women’s movement was not comprised of a single organizational unity, instead existing as a loosely structured network of black women’s organizations, support and discussion groups mobilized at grassroots and community levels. The black women’s movement unified Afro-Caribbean and Asian women through commonal-ities of race and gender, while simultaneously recognizing internal differentiations of class, cultural background, sexual orientation, politics, religion and language. The terminology of ‘black’ and ‘feminist’ labels triggered self-defining and contentious debates within the black women’s movement. A nonessentialized, politicized term, ‘black’ stressed both the foundational Afro-Asian unity of the black women’s movement and the heterogeneity of black women everywhere. The term ‘feminism’ was often rejected for its implicit racism or reappropriated under the label ‘black feminism’, with the black women’s movement primarily originating in response to the exclusionary nature of an ethnocentric and eurocentric feminism advocated by the largely white, middle-class women’s liberation movement. The black women’s movement questioned their universalist assumptions of female sexual and political oppression, exposing white feminism’s emphasis on gender and personal politics through a privileged, predominantly separatist discourse which entirely negated black women’s (and men’s) experiences of racism, colonialism and imperialism. As Hazel Carby declared: Black feminists have been, and are still, demanding that the existence of racism must be acknowledged as a structuring feature of our relationships with white women. Both white feminist theory and practice have to recognize that white women stand in a power relation as oppressors of black women. This compromises any feminist theory and practice founded on the notion of simple equality. (Mirza 1997:46)
   The black women’s movement enabled black women to assert themselves against a ‘double invisibility’ or ‘double colonization’ and to rally against oppressive forms of racism and sexism in all their personal and institutional guises. By recovering the marginalized narratives and voices of black women through a developing black and post-colonial feminism, the black women’s movement confronted forces of cultural imperialism in hegemonic discourses, systems and practices, whether white feminism or the capitalist British state.
   Black female academics like Carby and Pratibha Parmar critiqued white feminism and rejected its patronizing attitudes towards black women on issues relating to the family, class and sexuality. Commonly cited as a source of women’s oppression, the family also offered a means of resistance for black women against racist and imperialist forces, for example, state immigration laws that divided black families, forced sterilizations and fuelled an abortion debate among black women. Black women objected to the cultural solopsism of white feminists, who denounced traditional practices such as purdah or arranged marriages through a misinformed understanding of the cultural complexities, simplistically imposing judgements shaped by their own ideological conditioning instead. Black feminists criticized their own misrepresentation and that of subaltern women by a ‘First World’ feminism constructing itself as a liberationist force for the oppressed victims of traditionalist cultures. Much early black feminist scholarship also sought to locate black women within their own subjective and critical spaces through processes of historical reclamation. The black women’s movement acknowledged its origins of struggle within a collective diasporic history of oppression through slavery, colonialism, Third World liberationist struggles, state racism and economic exploitation. Portrayed by white feminists, for example, as passive, docile females, black female migrant workers were often instigating agents and participants in industrial strikes and disputes, driven to activism by the race and employment issue. In a landmark 1977 dispute, Asian women led a high-profile strike against employers at the Grunswick Photoprocessing Plant, North London, against discriminatory terms and conditions of employment. In 1995, predominantly Asian female cleaners at Hillingdon Hospital, Middlesex, embarked on a continuing dispute following their sackings over rejected pay cuts. In 1978, the socialist-based, non-hierarchical national black women’s Organization of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) provided a discursive platform of exchange and network between black women and off-shoot black women’s movement organizations. OWAAD held four conferences between 1978 and 1982, the first conference leading to the formation of women’s groups nationwide, offering practical support for black women involved in protest campaigns, deportations, strikes, industrial disputes, domestic violence and for those with health, education or housing problems. For example, OWAAD staged a sit-in protest at Heathrow Airport to protest at the virginity tests conducted on Asian female immigrants to verify their claims of residency and marriage in Britain. The black women’s movement exposed the tests as another demonstration of state racism intruding upon the personal and sexual lives of black immigrants. OWAAD eventually collapsed over structural deficiencies, internal wranglings over black sexualities and a unifying ‘black’ label which exposed its conflicting political perspectives, vying for OWAAD’s prioritization in, for example, African liberationist struggles or British race issues. OWAAD led to groups like Brixton Black Women’s Group, the Asian Refuge Centre, Manchester Black Women’s Cooperative and the championed Southall Black Sisters (SBS), supporting black women subjected to domestic and racial violence. SBS was involved in the historic over-turning, on the grounds of severe psychological and physical abuse, of Kiranjit Ahluwalia’s 1989 conviction for her husband’s murder. Women Against Fundamentalism was also created to counter the patriarchal stance of religious fundamentalism within ethnic communities.
   Despite its fragmentation during the 1980s and 1990s, the black women’s movement has localized in instances of individual and collective ‘black’ activism and black British feminist agency. As Mirza emphasizes: ‘Strategic multiplicity and contingency is a hallmark of black British feminism. If anything, what our struggles demonstrate is that you can have difference (polyvocality) within a conscious construction of sameness (i.e. black feminism)’ (Mirza 1997:21) The black women’s movement made pioneering gains by introducing a myopic feminism to vital pluralisms, demonstrating the shortcomings of feminist theories which obviated factors of race and imperialism as power constructs. Importantly, it extended the post-colonial/ postmodernist debate about women, race and imperialism in subjective, critical and political spaces from imposed positions of historical marginalization to one of empowered visibility in British institutional life and on its streets.
   See also: ‘Black Women Talk Collective
   Further reading
    Amos, V., Lewis, G., Mama, A. and Parmar, P. (eds) (1984) ‘Many Voices, One Chant: Black Feminist Perspectives’, Feminist Review 17(a formative black women’s movement text which encapsulates nascent black feminist concerns).
    Mirza, H.S. (1997) Black British Feminism: A Reader, London: Routledge (a definitive text of a developing post-colonial and postmodernist black feminism).
   SATINDER CHOHAN

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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