Feminist Responses to State Violence
by Lola Olufemi
Lola Olufemi is a black feminist from London. She’s currently finishing her masters in Gender Studies at SOAS. She is the author of a forthcoming book about feminism set to be published in 2020 as part of Pluto Press’ ‘Outspoken’ Series.
Feminist Responses to State Violence was a day of panels and workshops that took place took place on April 13th 2019 at the School of African and Asian studies in London. It aimed to think and reflect on the methods feminists use to resist the harm caused by state governance. Organised by Sisters Uncut, SOAS’ Gender Studies Centre and the NUS Women’s Campaign, it examined the ways that austerity, deportation, criminalization and the creeping spectre of fascism are key features of the state’s regime and why they should be central to contemporary feminist resistance. As organisers, we were interested in specific methods of resistance but also in identifying the ways that state violence is hidden and downplayed by mainstream feminist discourses. We wanted to deconstruct why mainstream approaches failed to rectify harm hear from those on the frontlines of radical state resistance. Speakers included SWARM (Sex Worker Resistance Movement), members from the All African Women’s Group, representatives from specialist domestic violence service Imkaan and the Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly.
The first panel entitled ‘The Fight against Austerity’ intended to reframe austerity as a feminist issue. The panel reflected on the devastating consequences of the 10 year regime of cuts and privatization alongside the gutting of public services, including specialist services for survivors. We discussed how methods of resistance included making critical interventions into mainstream party politics, as well as direct action and encouraging women’s services to reject carceral solutions to tackling domestic violence presented by the state. Panelists identified how austere conditions help foster an environment for fascist activity and how crucially, feminists must respond to the co-optation of patriarchal violence and child sexual abuse by fascists who seek to demonise Muslim men through essentialist rhetoric. What emerged from this panel was that long-term strategies needed to be cultivated and alliances made between grassroots activist group, subversive women’s organisations and those with access to shaping media narratives.
The second panel ‘Resisting the State’ focused on the role of criminalisation and deportation. SWARM reflected on the ways criminalisation makes it harder for sex workers to find work without putting themselves at greater risk of harm. They identified how liberal feminists play a crucial role in legitimizing state violence against sex workers through over-simplistic narratives of victimhood and an uncritical reliance on police and state intervention. Alongside the All African Women’s Group, they revealed the ways that the darkest parts of the state operate: deporting vulnerable women in the dead of night and detaining them indefinitely. The links between criminalisation, deportation and detention were made clear: police raids on sex workers often lead to deportation, documents and money being seized. Different aspects of state power are intricately related and rely on one another to function. Chloe Filani reflected on the way black trans women are put at risk through carceral logic and how, in crafting a feminism that resists, we must also recognise the differences in the ways that trans and cis women experience state violence.
The day included breakout workshops sessions on creativity, welfare and strategy that provided activists with a space to meet and interact with one another. For the organisers, resistance comes in many forms and we hope this was reflected in the organisation and focus on the panels and workshops. We aimed to demonstrate that feminist movements in England already have to the tools and resources to resist and have been doing so for decades. In order to strengthen our movements we must take back was neoliberal feminism has stolen from us: the fighting and combative nature of feminism. Putting the fight back into our feminism means clearly defining what we stand for and what we stand against. This can be done at a number of different levels, at the grassroots, at the level of public commentary, at the level of service provision. The aim is to recapture the public conversation about what feminism is and what it can do. In reframing the violence of the state as a feminist concern, we hope to reveal what Wendy Brown clearly identifies, that behind the states seeming ‘concern’ for women, it bears all the familiar elements of male dominance. By crafting methods of working in and against the state, we hope to demonstrate that there are a number of ways to resist. We refuse to be prescriptive and instead see benefit in crafting strategy collectively. This was one of the aims of bringing together closely related movements and their members.
For us, resistance means many things. It means building transformative relations of care and new ways of assisting one another outside of the realm of law and policy. It means making sure that new members of our movements understand the urgency of the task at hand and that we share skills and resources between activist groups. It means finding novel ways to stop deportations and frustrate the most violent mechanisms of state control. We hope this is just one of many public interventions of its kind and that we can create more spaces where feminist activists, students, academics and commentators may coalesce.
Brown, W. (1992). Finding the Man in the State. Feminist Studies,18 (1), 7-34. doi: 10.2307/3178212