What does it mean to be a modern feminist? In her new book, Sara Ahmed shows the connections between theory and practice, the academy and the everyday, home and work. Bitch Magazine says: “Beautifully written and persuasively argued, Living a Feminist Life, is not just an instant classic, but an essential read for intersectional feminists.” Order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!
Sara Ahmed’s accessibly written and visionary Living a Feminist Life is a much-needed antidote to the disconnection between feminist thinking and being. The book has emerged against a political backdrop marked by the rise of the Trump regime, a historic Women’s March on Washington and International Women’s Strike, an increase in the visibility of feminist activism on social media and the rise of celebrity feminists. “Feminism,” as Ahmed remarks in the opening pages, “is bringing people into the room.” The amplification of feminism, however, also demands that we stop to consider what being a feminist really means. Drawing on decades of experience as a feminist writer, scholar and activist, Ahmed takes us on this critical journey with candor, brilliance and a deep commitment to social transformation. Feminism, Ahmed contends, is not simply about participating in protests and rallies or writing theory in the academy. Nor is it to be understood as a responsibility that waxes and wanes with convenience. It is, above all else, about how to live.
From cover to cover, Ahmed urges us to keep our fists raised high as we move closer to a feminist vision of the future that unfolds in step with the active dismantling of our profoundly unjust and violent present. She reminds us to be intrepid and willful in our political resistance — to learn from the wisdom and knowledge of warrior women of color whose legacies, histories and experiences are etched on our contemporary path to justice and freedom (these issues have long existed). Ahmed challenges us to embody our feminist politics as a radical ethics of living in the everyday dimensions of our social world, to claim all spaces as political, and to strategically strike down the “brick walls” that blockade and stifle our movements. In short, Living a Feminist Life aims to both awaken and set free the “feminist killjoy” that resides in each of us.
Jaskiran Dhillon: Let’s begin with you elaborating on the central theme of the book — making feminism the practice of everyday life.
Sara Ahmed: I think of feminism as a life question; a question of how we live our lives given that the structures we wish to transform are structures that persist. We have to live with what we wish to transform. As a feminist working in the academy, though, I sensed that what was taught and known as “feminist theory” had become somewhat disconnected from the questions of how to live, and the questions themselves relegated to an earlier outdated style of feminism. I wanted to bring feminist theory, too, back to life — strengthening the ties between the inventive creation of feminist theory and living a life that sustains it.
To be a feminist is to be a feminist everywhere. Feminism is not a commitment that can be suspended when it is inconvenient. But that does not mean feminists share the same commitments or that it is always clear how that commitment should express itself! Work is part of everyday life. When we live a feminist life we are a feminist at work. Feminism means being attentive to power relations at home and at work, being willing to challenge abuses of power, being willing to support those who are challenging abuses of power. It means being aware of who is doing the work, especially the housework (in institutions, housework is called administration); it means striving to make workloads more equal (including by attending to how they are not); it means becoming attuned to who can access a space because of how it is arranged or inhabited (and who cannot). Feminism is about questioning everything about our shared social world. This is not an imposition. It is an invitation to open up what tends to work by being closed down.
I love the emphasis you place on the role of intergenerational knowledge in shaping feminist living. Who influenced your development as a feminist?
My auntie Gulzar Bano was very important to me. She self-identified as a feminist; she was involved in the women’s movement in Pakistan. She believed strongly in what she called woman power. Her particular concern was literacy for girls. She was an inspiration, too, in how she lived her life. Because she did not get married and have children she was able to invest her time and energy in feminist projects of all kinds. She wrote feminist poetry: I cherish the collections in which her poems appeared as well as the books she published. Her words were always animated by her concern with the effects of violence and injustice. I think I learned the importance of writing our politics from her. She also developed a strong support network for women in the wider family; her sisters and nieces. Sometimes she used to call me her daughter; I think she saw us as deeply connected, as if my life was following in some way from hers. I hope so. She was my feminist auntie in all the ways that expression can have meaning. We all need feminist aunties!
What compelled you to write this book now?
The experience that most shaped the book was the experience of supporting students through a process of testifying in multiple inquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct at the college in England where I worked. That experience brought so much home to me; how traumatic it can be to testify to what is traumatic; how difficult it is made to bring a complaint against a person or a group of people who have more power by virtue of their position within an organization; how even feminists can be silent about abuses of power happening in their own organizations; how organizations will do anything to protect their reputation. This was an experience of “coming up against wall after wall,” as I described in the book. And I was taught again (I am sure I will be taught again) that to identify a problem is to become the location of that problem. It is because of the costs of exposing institutional violence (including the violence of how institutions conceal the violence) that we need to build feminist shelters, places to go.
Young people are crucial to social movements fighting colonial violence in all its forms. Is there a key takeaway for young feminists?
The figure of the feminist killjoy: She is an insight and she is insightful! She starts as a stereotype of feminists — that feminists take the joy out of things. But when we claim her, she gives us energy, sometimes even joy. So often we are warned about the dangers of feminism: how feminism will make you unhappy, lonely, less successful. It might be that in becoming a feminist you revisit what you want your life to be; you might ask whether the versions of success and happiness that are available to you are ones you agree with. But whatever: Don’t be warned off. Power often works through warnings — I have learned this by how students are warned about how complaining of harassment would damage themselves as well as others. Warning often implies that the only option is to get used to it. It is so important that young feminists don’t get used to it. Don’t normalize it. We can accept that feminism comes with risks. There are consequences that we will have to live with; anti-feminism is a world we live in. Part of being a feminist is finding others who will be your support system. And remember, being a feminist gives you knowledge: We know so much from what emerges in response to the issues and experiences we bring up. This does not mean [that] as feminists we are always right! Becoming a feminist is about opening up what your life can be; an opening that is a connection to the feminists who came before.
The book concludes with a feminist survival kit of sorts (Killjoy Survival Kit) as well as a set of principles to help guide and anchor feminist living (Killjoy Manifesto). How can these be drawn upon to craft concrete strategies of political resistance in the era of Trump?
I could give a very long answer to this question! But let me just point to a few things. My killjoy survival kit was very much inspired by the work of Audre Lorde, who wrote so powerfully about how caring for oneself can be an act of political warfare. She was writing as a Black lesbian mother warrior woman who had breast cancer. She was writing from an experience of profound political as well as bodily fragility. Lorde shows how survival can be a strategy of resistance; the work we do to be can be a strategy of resistance. And resistance can take many forms; it is not only about being part of a march, though marching matters. Resistance can be what happens when you challenge racist views that are presented at a family table. It can be the moment you snap, and don’t put up with a violence you have endured. It can be how you communicate your rage about a system within a system; whether it is through the words you send out or how you use your body to announce your disagreement, perhaps by striking, perhaps by occupying spaces and disrupting how they are ordinarily used.
We might have to use different methods to get the message out, to counter the state’s story with stories of the injustice, say, of anti-immigrant violence, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism and persistent colonial violence against Indigenous communities. We need to keep doing the work. Work where you are. Don’t let the problem appear only “there;” it is here. Speak out from where you are. Do what you can, given your own resources and capacities. Work with people who get you. Talk. Shout. Be.
How does your blueprint for “living a feminist life” differ from “institutional diversity” (a catch phrase in most universities)?
Institutional diversity is often how organizations claim diversity without doing anything. It is often about using bodies of color as evidence of diversity. Institutional diversity is racism represented in a happier form. For feminists of color, “institutional diversity” is another brick wall. An example from my research: an organization’s response to a research project that showed that the organization was perceived as white was to produce a new prospectus with more colorful faces. You can change the image to keep the thing. Diversity [then] becomes how an organization stays white. Our work is about exposing the mechanisms that enable the structures to be reproduced, and diversity can be one of those mechanisms.
At one point you say: “So much political work begins with moments of disorientation.” As an educator who views teaching as a political act, this really resonates. Can you expand further?
That part of the book is a development of some of the ideas I first presented in Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006). When we are at home in the world, or when a world has been built to accommodate us, it tends to recede, becoming background. We know where we are; we know how to find things. Orientation is often the experience of not having a crisis about orientation! But when things move around, or you enter a world not built to accommodate you, things become strange, slant-wise, queer even. To question a world, or when the world becomes something you question, you proceed from a sense of being thrown. When things get thrown in the air, who knows what can happen.
What is your feminist vision for justice and freedom?
I have spent so much of my time describing how the world is; how injustices often work in ways that are not always tangible, how some can be worn down and worn out by what is necessary to exist. For me, a feminist vision of freedom has to be about freedom for all; not about passing one person’s exhaustion onto another. It has to be about freedom from violence whether that violence is perpetrated by individuals, organizations, the police or the state. It has to be about freedom to decide on how to organize a life; freedom to access and inhabit spaces with others; freedom to express one’s own identity as gendered beings in one’s own terms; freedom as creating the conditions so we can participate in each other’s freedom. As such, a feminist vision of freedom and justice has to be about staying close to the ground, close to what is: Our vision comes out of the struggles to exist.
Truthout Progressive Pick
We name the conditions that make justice and freedom impossible: white supremacy, racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia; ways of differentiating between the value and life chances of persons that are central to late capitalism. Naming the conditions is more about using words. Naming is also noticing. So much violence is reproduced by not being noticed. So often, when you name what is not noticed you are judged as being negative. I have also observed from working to change these conditions within universities that sometimes the requirement to be positive, to provide a solution, to be practical or useful can become another means by which the conditions are made invisible. Naming these conditions, naming them again, knowing about them; working out their effects: It is a life project. Our visions, what we are for, can come from the wear and tear of what we come up against.
What do you hope white feminists learn from this book?
This book is not addressed to white feminists. If it is addressed to any group of feminists it is addressed to feminists of color, who are often positioned as interrupting a conversation that starts with white women. Interruption comes from rupture, break. For me, feminism of color is how I start the conversation. But this is not to say I don’t hope white feminists learn something!