"A commitment to care... and to disobedience."

Lola Olufemi discusses her latest book, 'Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power'

In her new book Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power (Pluto Press, 2020), Lola Olufemi claims feminism not as a set of inflexible dogmas, but as a supportive framework that equips us in our struggle for the radical transformation of society. At once accessible and deeply insightful, the book draws shrewd connections between the local and the global as interrelated sites of liberatory struggle, showing the ways in which gendered oppression underpins and inflects the entire social order. It’s the feminist manifesto we need. Lola was kind enough to sit down (virtually!) with me to talk about the book, radical politics, so-called ‘gender critical feminism’, and so much more.

JSTell us a bit about the book—how did it come about? What compelled you to write it? In what ways do you envision it as an interruption?

LOThe main thing I wanted to do with this book was try and remake the case, I guess to a younger audience or to people just coming to critical thinking, that feminism is a political methodology that we can use to seriously think about and work towards collective liberation. I take that proposition seriously and I wanted to make that case in as accessible a format as possible. This is by no means a new idea and has been thoroughly articulated by scholars and organisers for as long as individuals and collectives on the underside of capital, race and gender have been attentive to their material conditions. In an age of neoliberalism in which a version of feminism becomes sellable, the mainstream publishing is saturated with faux “feminist” books that focus exclusively on individualised everyday experiences of sexism or data bias, or policy gaps, and don’t really think beyond that remit or encourage readers to recognise how gender, gendered violence and exploitation is central to matrix of oppressive systems that organise the way we live. That’s an obvious critique—this book attempts to counter it by taking seriously that those coming to critically consider the world we live in should be approached without condescension, that they can handle big ideas about the abolition of prevailing systems of violence, the state, critiques of capitalism and so on. I found my way to radical politics through theory and I wanted to create another route, adjacent to that that acted as a primer before people moved on to ‘big thinkers’ and theorists who explore the topics in the book obviously in far greater detail. I think it is an interruption into a publishing scene that understands feminism only in relation to womanhood and legislative equality; it’s an invitation to cultivate a feminist ethos and to understand that this will change the way you think and move in the world and it’s an invitation to imagine worlds that we might craft together—even as certain sections of the left might dismiss these as merely utopian. Feminists have big imaginations; I wanted to honour that.

JSYou write really compellingly about your coming to feminist consciousness, firstly as a set of intuitions and experiences that came with growing up as somebody that was raced and gendered in particular ways, and secondly through a frenzied period of reading. Sara Ahmed has talked about coming-to-consciousness as a moment of “feminist snap”—the moment that something breaks and you realise, like Lisa Simpson, that “the whole damn system is wrong”—but for me it was less an instant than a much slower and more immersive process. Was it the same for you?

LOI can only describe it as process in which feelings that arose as a result of being racialised, gendered and part of the working class (that are made to seem inherent and just a normal part of being) became aligned or overlapped with the language to articulate why I was being made to feel a certain kind of alienation or exposed to certain kinds of violence and why others were experiencing the same by having their lives stunted and being killed prematurely. I think snaps and moments are good ways to think about it but its also a life-long process and commitment; there was definitely was a brink in my thinking from which I knew I couldn’t return. Once the machinery of exploitation has been revealed to you, it’s hard to pretend not to see how this world makes us miserable. So my feminist consciousness was grounded on the principle that we could live differently but also being aware of the ways that the misery of this world is so expansive and never ending and cruelly innovative. I think that’s where the seriousness comes from—the enactment of a liberatory theory and practice and of all kinds of resistance is not a joke to me or the people who have lost loved ones, or parts of themselves or experienced trauma because of it.

JSYour description of coming-to-consciousness rang so true for me as a process—I understood from a very young age that my experience of the world was inflected by the fact that, in my case, I was classed and gendered in specific ways, and only later came to a full theoretical understanding of that. So, in a very Theory Nerd, way, I’d love to know what books you read that had an impact—positive or negative—on how your feminism developed. Secondarily, how does theory relate to practice, for you? How has your activism been transformed by engagement with certain feminist theories?

LOIt’s impossible to create a comprehensive list but I would say I had quite a typical introduction to critical politics through black feminist thinking. Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider was crucial to me at 18, as was the Combahee River Collective statement. Later, so were the words and the organising practices of Angela Davis, Gail Lewis, Assata Shakur, Claudia Jones, Olive Morris, Stella Dadzie, Liz Obi. Marxist thinkers like Shulamith Firestone, Silvia Federici, Selma James. Gramsci, Ann Oakley, Kate Millett because I did Year 11 Sociology. Groups like OWAAD and the Brixton Black Women’s Group, the British Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the women who lead the Grunwick Strike. As my politics have developed Sylvia Wynter has become important to me.

Judith Butler changed how I understood gender, as did reading the work of those on the frontline of movements against land expropriation or landgrabs in places like Brazil and Canada. Marx made points, as did Rosa Luxemburg and Flora Tristan! Being on the internet introduced me to prison abolitionists like Mariame Kaba and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and generally made me a smarter person. Sex workers like Juno Mac and Molly Smith shaped my thinking around sex work. Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto is a text I remember reading that turned things upside down for me.

Too many Twitter accounts to name, archive websites, reading lists curated by my Marxist friends, being a member of Sisters Uncut and the groups I organised with at university have had a big hand in politicising me.

The cultural work of people like Saidiya Hartman and Tina Campt who belong to a very specific black tradition, Lubaina Himid’s paintings and Lorna Simpson’s work. Poets like Nikki Giovanni, Wendy Trevino, Anne Boyer, Momtaza Mehri. I really love Hannah Black’s work at the moment! I say in the book that it was black feminist politics that woke me up to the violence and misery of this world and provided some of the most transformative and comprehensive solutions to it. I owe a lot to that tradition.

I think my organising has been shaped by coming into contact with certain theories/theorists because it means I’m constantly having to change my mind—I think it’s important to remain flexible enough in your thinking that you don’t get too attached to certain modes of thinking and thus become unable to critique them. I think that’s what feminism has taught me, that there are always a set of competing and sometimes contradicting arguments being made at any given time—the task is to synthesise them.

JSJust to return to the question of gendered experience—this is of course one of the things that so-called ‘gender critical feminists’ (as if the rest of us have no critiques of the gender order as currently constituted!), otherwise known as TERFs, like to talk about a lot. Your claim, in the book, that “‘woman’ is a strategic coalition” seems to me to hold true in two ways, and also to pose a problem. For us, it stands as a reminder that all social categories are functions of society, and that choosing to group together under a particular designation can be a means of what Jules Gleeson has called “historicis[ing conditions] with a view towards ending them”. But for ‘gender critical feminists’ (as well as their historical antecedents such as Betty “Lavender Menace” Friedan, Susan B. Anthony, etc.) ‘woman’ is a strategic coalition that’s been used to exclude, a coalition formed to keep certain people out. A form of psychic bordering, I guess. Meanwhile, a friend of mine (who is a trans woman) once expressed her discomfort with arguments for inclusion that rely on the fragility of ‘woman’ as a category; she felt that these claims undermined rather than affirmed her deeply-felt sense of ‘womanhood’. How do we grapple with these problems?

LOI take the idea of “strategic coalitions” and “strategic essentialism” from Mohanty and Spivak respectively. To me, they both provide clear ways of understanding what the function of womanhood is in the area of representation. So ‘woman’ is an identity category that we are forced (in the current schema of the West) to use in order to make demands for our freedom, to make legislative gains, to make our lives more liveable in the short term. In any other world, I would abandon it! But we deploy it in order to fight back and often because the urgency of the situation at hand doesn’t enable us these poststructuralist understandings without making some kind of concession. So we might provisionally tolerate essentialisms/coalitions in order to make claims, like “we deserve rights”, “we don’t want to be killed by our partners”, “austerity harms us”, etc., and included in that idea of “woman” that we evoke is every woman, trans and cis, non-binary people that might be read as women, racialised women, etc.—even as we know that trans women, black women, whole swathes of the population have routinely been denied access to womanhood historically and in the present moment, and that there are many people who aren’t comfortable with the designation. But as long as it is the main designation that is recognised politically, it’s merely another avenue we can use. We make a unitary claim in order to live free from violence, that’s its only function in my mind. I don’t actually think unity under these categories exists.

I think the difference for a whole subsection of ‘gender critical’ feminists is that they see that category as founded on something fixed and immutable called sex. So the only thing that makes a woman is a certain set of chromosomes. The only thing that invites gendered violence is certain sets of genitalia. For me, sex is merely another system of categorisation— a way for us to be made intelligible to one another, on which gender is then mapped. There’s a whole host of things that destabilise sex as fixed and rigid that I explore in more detail in the book. It’s less important to ask “what makes a woman” than it is to recognise that this system of intelligibility places us (trans and cis) women in danger. That is indisputable. Feminism is a tool that we can use to lessen proximity to violence and end violence all together for all those read as women, because if you are read as a woman or you disrupt the visual script dictated by gender no matter who you are, you pose a problem in the current schema/binary. The men harassing you on the street do not know or care about your chromosomal make-up… that is not why they are harassing you, so the idea of sex being the sole basis of gendered violence precludes us from even understanding why violence is happening to us in the first place.

Of course, like I say in the book, none of this means that we can’t have our own individual and private experiences of gender and have deep connections to that category that is shaped by our personal experiences. Womanhood means something to me (even as a black woman who has been barred access to it), and I don’t think that contradicts what I’ve said above. I’m not interested in policing how we feel about ourselves more than I am interested in critiquing the scheme that dictates those feelings. I came into this world and I was gendered by a prevailing system; that is not my fault, and I am not to blame for the ways I must navigate that designation in order to survive it. I don’t think a deeply held sense of womanhood which most of us have conflicts with an understanding of gender as a strategic coalition; the two can and do coexist.

JSYou and I have both had some recent issues with a certain very vocal, very speak-to-the-manager group of so-called ‘gender critical feminists’. In my case, as a cis feminist utterly dismayed at the amount of discursive ground being conceded to this poisonous ideology, I drafted a model motion for Labour Party members to take along to their local branches, so that they could discuss the issue openly in a way that begins from a position of solidarity with our trans comrades. This, as I’m sure you can guess, did not go down well in certain quarters, with all kinds of empty legal threats being thrown around, as well as some weird allegations about New Socialist from an unnamed historian’s dad (!!), and vile misogynistic abuse directed at me. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience, and the events that led up to it?

LOI withdrew from a panel at a conference because of its clear links with a transphobic organisation, and wrote a statement highlighting this and stating my understanding of the purpose of feminism and feminist practice, which was then shared and upset some academics. What I find really fascinating about the ensuing pile on was that these trolls had their chromosomes in their account names and bios to make a political point about the rigidity of sex. That is truly astounding to me. Anybody aware of the long lasting history of scientific racism and phrenology understands the alarm bells that something like that triggers. I steer clear of all claims on the basis of genetics because I understand, as a black person, that I am living in the afterlife of a world dictated by those pronouncements—it’s not fun! I’m trying to abolish it, not help it continue.

Because of how dire the mainstream feminist landscape is, trying to make arguments about how trans liberation is central to our collective liberation beyond just claims like “trans women are women” etc, often have to be curtailed in favour of simpler appeals to compassion. There is an underestimation of audience that means that the more complex arguments about what gender actually is, why trans women are women, and how gender functions are left out of the conservation. You of course don’t need to have a ‘theoretical’ understanding of gender—or anything, really—to understand proximity to violence and the frameworks that are seeking to render trans life impossible in this country, but facilitating those realisations for other people might cause a shift in how they think about their own lives in relation to gender and gendered violence as well as trans people. It might also make it clearer that every claim to that seeks to reinforce the rigidity of the sex binary is also a claim against queer life which has never fit neatly into that. It’s also a claim to reinscribe an idea of gender that makes transformative gender relations (something we must all be invested in) impossible. Facilitating those realisations in ourselves and others is crucial if we also want to talk about gendered labour, work practices and so on.

JSI’m really interested, philosophically-speaking, in the levels of plausible deniability engaged in by these groups. They claim not to be transphobic, but they wilfully misrepresent the law as it stands around gender recognition (and the exemptions that exist to help women with limited understandings of gender politics who access vital services to feel safe) in order to whip up a moral panic. They claim repeatedly that they’re attempting to engage “respectfully” and “have a debate”, whilst attempting to shut down all opposition using the triple strategy of official-sounding affronted statements, legal threats, and instigating social media harassment. If that doesn’t work, they move on to their allies in the right-wing press. It’s effectively impossible to have an honest discussion with these people, and it seems like a wilful strategy.

Your argument, in the book, that TERFism is basically driven by a form of anxiety really spoke to me. But I struggle to make sense of that alongside what seems to be a very deliberate, very right-wing, very organised campaign of dishonesty, misrepresentation, and hatred—and, interestingly, one which I personally (as a cis woman who is revolted by but necessarily distant from transphobic abuse) experienced as specifically class-inflected, too. As somebody who has always been poor and has experienced homelessness, the idea that a set of affluent middle-aged women might chance a defamation suit against me on the basis that, even if they didn’t win (which they wouldn’t), the cost of instructing a legal team would be so burdensome as to effectively destroy me kept me awake at night.

So I think we need a multiplicity of strategies to resist this colonisation (and I use the term very carefully) of feminism by affluent, well-connected white women who adhere to and enforce very specific Eurocentric gender ideologies. We need an ideological, discursive strategy, for sure. We need a populist strategy. We also need a material set of strategies that can help us navigate the vulgar-materialist reality that these people can get away with their actions, because they consistently punch down.

What do you reckon? How (if at all) do you think we can develop these sorts of strategies, and how can we balance a fightback against these specific organised groups with compassion for the people whose anxiety they exploit in order to whip up hatred?

LOI don’t think ‘debate’, as it’s framed in these invented culture wars, is the best format for knowledge acquisition. I think there is a section of TERF thinking that is interested, like I said before, in rendering trans life impossible and no amount of statistics, ‘logical’ argumentation or pleas will change that. But I also think there is a way that, by making a clear case for what gender is and how it harms us, we can help dismantle the anxiety of individuals who might otherwise be co-opted into a very organised lobby. That’s a task for those of us who can. TERFs are flirting with alt-right contrarians, Christian fundamentalists and fascists in ways that are deeply concerning. I think at a discursive level, being clearer about what we mean when we call gender an organising principle for our society, understanding that Western conceptions of gender are not universal, and linking it to capitalism publicly is one step.

As you’ve rightly pointed out, middle class white women are able to rely heavily on the courts precisely because they have never known any real type of insecurity and or precarity. The type of feminist practice I talk about in the book is concerned with mutual aid, grassroots organising, and local fightbacks as a means of making global demands. These academics are completely removed from feminist resistance like that, in the UK and across the world. It bears repeating that feminism is not just a theoretical endeavour. It comes with a commitment to care, to organising, and to disobedience. Like you say, having money shapes your political interests and it’s no coincidence that these monied, tenured voices are the same voices that position black feminist critique of mainstream movements as obstructive, or that align themselves with quasi-fascists in the art world, or genuine faces of the alt-right with which they can claim solidarity. This is where the façade begins to break down: aligning with institutions that have never been friends to women in order to emphasise your point, or railing against trans people in the middle of a global pandemic, demonstrates how fickle your political commitments are.

Building against these groups requires us to refocus discursively. The imposed trans vs cis culture war is an individualistic project and distracts from any collective attempt to improve material conditions for everyone. Liberal feminism’s framings also serve to position feminism as somehow unconcerned with or not attentive to questions of policing, borders, housing, ecological crisis and migration, which is not the case. So feminism is seen somehow as a narrow political framework instead of one that is concerned with the world and everyone in it. The women who are rebuilding their lives after 10 years of austerity do not care if the woman behind them in line for the food bank is trans or cis, but middle class gatekeepers have never cared for those women anyway. There are a number of examples at a grassroots level of organisations that are doing work in the local communities, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, that serve as an example of how we might refocus our attention. The springing up of mutual aid groups is one example. Detainee support groups lying in front of charter flights is another. The organisers of the annual Women’s Strike facilitating transnational feminist conversations is one more, as well as groups like Sisters Uncut and CAPE mounting organised responses to state violence.

JSSomething I really loved in the book was the positioning of the chapter on gendered Islamophobia immediately after the chapter on transmisogyny. It does the really important work of connecting up what I think are two of the four major feminist struggles of the present moment (with the other two being sex worker rights and the full, global liberation of working-class women and femmes). And the connection, perhaps unsurprisingly, is through a combination of fear-of-the-other and what I’ll quite loosely call ‘bodily policing’. This fixation with which bodies are visible, and how, seems like a particular problem in the 21st century UK. Why do you think this is, and how can we resist it?

LOThat’s a big question! I don’t think it’s a problem distinct to this century at all. Some bodies have always been more visible than others—visible of potential units of labour, as chattel, visible for exploitation. I think the better question is always visible to whom? Because it seems easier for some of us to recognise the different vulnerabilities of bodies than others. One thing that I think neoliberal feminism does so well is naturalise some women’s exploitation so it becomes an invisible part of other women’s success. It’s not just about the figurative women who clean the boardrooms, it’s about reckoning with the fact that liberal feminism has never had a way to account for them. Part of a radical feminist politics is ensuring that nobody’s pain goes unseen, starting with the women hardest hit by austerity, with the dispossessed, the homeless, with the bodies marked as collateral damage from the world wars waged in our names.

I think in the UK, Muslim women oscillate between invisibility and hypervisibiltity—invisibility in terms of their centrality to the working class (they are among the most economically disenfranchised in the country), who have their contributions to labour movements actively erased, and hypervisible as targets of gendered violence who cannot access specific support services because of austerity. Hypervisible also as people onto which men enact violence whipped up by the ways the state deploys and frames terrorism. Muslim women across the world are being randomly attacked in the street, pushed down stairs and pushed in front of trains—that again is left out of mainstream feminist conversations about “street harassment” and debates about criminalising certain sexist behaviours, which we already know does not work.

I think one thing that capitalism does really well is obscure the chain of exploitation that is necessary to provide us with goods and services and so you’re right, the task of critical feminism is to pull back the curtain on that chain of exploitation and make it impossible to look away.

JSThe chapter on art—and the ways in which certain ‘types’ of women are excluded from artistic production—really rang true for me. As a socialist publication that takes culture incredibly seriously, and which believes that “culture is ordinary”, we’re really interested in how we can develop alternative cultural ecologies that support non-exclusionary cultural production and the creative capacities of every single person. If you could be granted three wishes to be used to transform British cultural life, what would you wish for?

LO1. No gatekeepers or cultural “institutions”.
2. All forms of cultural/artistic life would be free, as would the resources to cultivate it.
3. Work, as we know it, wouldn’t exist.

Those would be my three wishes to start.

JSEngaging in transformative struggle transforms us: we know this from our experiences. How has the process of writing a feminist manifesto (can I call it that?) transformed you?

LOI think the moment of the strike, the sit in, the protest, the song, the vigil are all special moments. Even if we do not live to see our long-term goals achieved, they remind us that there are new ways of caring and being with one another that we can access even as this world prevents us from reaching our full potential. Writing this book highlighted to me how I am a product of all the feminist organisers and thinkers that invested in me. The people I am lucky enough to call my friends and all those thinkers and organisers I came across in my teenage/university years in real life or on the page; in many ways they made me and freed me. They taught me that the full scope of feminist protection must be extended to all and also gave me the space to get things wrong and the patience to challenge and correct me. I learnt by listening and by reading and by watching them. They quite literally transformed me—I return to those relations when I am tempted to be consumed by despair.

JSFinally—what’s next for you?

LOHopefully starting a PhD in September. I want to write fiction; if I keep saying it, maybe I will do it.

Lola Olufemi’s book Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power is published by Pluto Press. Our review will be published in our forthcoming edition.


Lola Olufemi (@lolaolufemi_)

Lola Olufemi is a black feminist writer and organiser from London. She facilitates workshops on feminism and histories of political organising in schools, universities and local communities. She is the co-author of A FLY Girl’s Guide to University: Being a Woman of Colour at Cambridge and Other Institutions of Power and Elitism (Verve Poetry Press, 2019).

josie sparrow (@ofthesparrows)

josie is a writer, and a co-editor of New Socialist. Her website is peachtreepeartree.com.