Not a How-To Book
Updated: Jan 20
Living a Feminist Life. Sara Ahmed. Duke University Press. London. 2017.
Sara Ahmed describes a feminist job as “a banging your head against the brick wall job” (p.110). Concepts of gender, inequality, racism, and discrimination are not new, however, Ahmed along with her gifted feminist vocabulary presents these issues in a smart, honest and nuanced manner in this book. She labels books as a feminist companion and hers surely finds a top spot in that category. She does not provide a to-do list but instead describes that to live a feminist life is to view feminism as a “life question”. She gets across her ideas by enunciating lived moments, scholarly literature, film parallels, feminist concepts and theories.
Interactions with Intersectionality
Ahmed begins with profound life questions and moves towards questions of identity in order to explore intersectionality. She shared personal anecdotes to explain what she calls “polite racism”. If you do not appear as you are expected to appear, you do not appear (p.226). She had to confront her brownness as foreign and reside in the questions put before her. The identity as a woman of color is an either/or proposition and relegates this identity to a location that resists telling (Crenshaw, 1991, 1242). Ahmed also draws parallels from Ien Ang’s wonderful chapter “On Not Speaking Chinese” and declares that these questions of identity and belonging not only appear as questions, but in fact work as asertions (p.128). She adds that her relationship with her girlfriend is always questioned, and then asserted to be fit into the category of either a sister or husband.
The book also reveals the influence of black feminists in Ahmed’s life as she was frequently acknowledging their role and citing the works of those like Audre Lorde. She also defined lesbian feminism of color: as the struggle to put themselves back together because within lesbian shelters too their being was not always accommodated (p.230). In her inquiry of decoding what it means to be living a feminist life, Ahmed also seems to time and again come back to the body as an entity. She analyzes how not appearing consistent with an expectation would lead to a body being perceived as a question mark in itself. At this junction, she also addresses her privilege by describing herself as brown, but of a higher class. Further, she enunciated instances of disorientation by quoting Frantz Fanon and describing hostility of the white gaze, whiteness as a seal, and perception of White as the universal (p.144).
The author also spoke at length about the word “diversity” and its multifold connotations at the feminist table. The rationale behind using less problematic or positive words is to avoid becoming the problem by not naming the problem (p.111). Essentially, diversity is being used in place of more threatening and less approachable terms, in order to have a practical appeal. However, the very same positivity exuded by the term may also be the reason why key issues are obscured. The lustrous surface created by diversity reflects a good image back to itself, but also removes the traces of labor that were behind creating the very same luster. In this sense, diversity may also become a technique for not addressing inequalities by allowing institutions to appear happy (p.113).
Diversity becomes about changing the perception of the issue rather than changing the actual issue in the organization. It becomes all the more imperative that diversity work as willful work persists as institutions continue to resist (p.124). The image management involved in diversity works in a way that if an institution is considered to be white male dominated, then the perception of whiteness would be changed but not the actual whiteness of the institution (p.116). The strategies of polishing or tarnishing this image of diversity, employed by diversity workers boils down to just being different ways of trying to unblock this blockage pervading the feminist world.
To Build or Break Brick Walls
Ahmed seems to enjoy using wall metaphors to get her points about resistance and persistence across. She describes walls as defense mechanisms, phantom walls, open doors, functional evidence of materiality of race and gender, and much more. A feminist killjoy is one who constructs these walls for varied motives. She explains that the feminist killjoy is perceived as a wall maker; one who makes things harder than they need to be (p.153). However, she disagrees with this and aspires to be more of a feminist killjoy if it means that she might become more warier of the consequences of being oppositional (p.184). In order for the shattered diversity worker to survive, she also comes up with a feminist killjoy survival kit. This is engulfed by the sentence that feminists need feminism to survive, and that self-care is warfare (p.236). Caring for oneself is self-preservation, an act of political warfare (Lorde, 1988, 31). She finally reasons that the story of how the walls for feminist shelter keep standing is owed to the story of the exhausted diversity worker.
A few women taking on the prerogative of speaking for all women gives rise to the danger of the appropriation of the “other” in feminist politics (Dalwai, 2012, 101). This is why Ahmed also talks about an army connection: female arms shaped by history, and the techniques of power in an effort to be in a world that does not accommodate our being (p.234). A feminist must not stop talking about exclusions only to be included.
In its entirety, the book is an amalgamation of how to navigate through the various struggles and triumphs encountered while trying to lead a feminist life in today’s day and age. Ahmed’s theoretical concepts in the book seem to be on the verge of being repetitive however, each time they come back, it is with a twist or with added space for contemplation. Ahmed willingly engages in the messiness of intersectionality, personal and sensitive anecdotes of physical abuse, racial profiling, intra-feminist debates and more to provide an impressive reading. Assuming feminism to be the body, misgendering, gender fatalism, racial capitalism, and more such concepts present itself as the plaque that block the arteries of opportunity and fairness.
Her toolkit and this 9 Chapters survival book can be described as “snap”, a term coined by her, to be not just the starting point, but the start of something, as an invaluable contribution to feminist scholarship.
Crenshaw, Kimberly. (1991). Mapping the Margins. Retrieved March 20, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/1229039
Dalwai, Sameena. (2012). Performing caste: the ban on bar dancing in Mumbai. Retrieved March 20, 2021, from http://repository.keele.ac.uk:8080/intralibrary/open_virtual_file_path/i
Lorde, Audre. (1988). A Burst of Light: Essays. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://archive.org/details/burstoflightessa00lord