On Feminism’s Fragile Army

In Sara Ahmed's Living A Feminist Life, feminism is the process of gathering the shards that have been broken when we encounter walls.

In the weeks leading up to the launch of Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life in March, I was most surprised by her nervousness. I had been reading her blog, Feminist Killjoys, for a few years. Her queer, affective, feminist, anti-racist, rageful writings, along with her scholarly and political triumphs as a consistently critical voice, left me bewildered at the tacit fragility that I came to witness as we began to plan for her event at my university.

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press Books. 2017. 312 pages.

Sara Ahmed was the type of scholar-activist we like to invite. The purpose of our speaker series is to break down binaries between “thinkers” and “doers”: It was launched on the premise that theory and politics are two sides of the same coin. Ahmed has long understood this commitment and, early on in her new book, she writes that “theory can do more the closer it gets to the skin.” It took me several interactions with Ahmed and her writings, and some time mulling over my own political history, to realize the full import of that claim: Intimacy with our theory—and by extension, our politics—is not only powerful, it can also be painful.

When I first wrote to Ahmed almost a year ago to ask her to speak, she had just resigned from Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest against the institution’s failure to address sexual harassment. At first, Ahmed told me that she would not be able to come. “I am actually stepping back from all commitments for the rest of the year—just to rebuild my life after a very difficult three years.” Ahmed had been bruised by running into what she calls “brick walls”: hard structures that emerged to block any efforts to bring mysteriously disappeared cases of sexual harassment to light. When students approached her four years ago with stories of groping, harassment, and sexual comments from male faculty, she joined forces with them, only to encounter the brick walls of sexism springing up. Whenever she and those she organized with would point them out, the obstacles would be dismissed as figments of an overzealous imagination or as ghosts, phantoms, and hallucinations. The rejections took the shape of walls blocking their ability to confront sexism and harassment. Colliding with them left Ahmed—and the faculty and students she worked with—injured. In a short statement Ahmed posted on her blog within days of her resignation, she referred to the immense damage of constantly running into solid bricks: “I have resigned because the costs of doing this work has been too high.”

Looking back at the circumstances of Ahmed’s departure from Goldsmiths, I wonder why I was so surprised at the brittleness I would soon get to know. After all, I was not unacquainted with vulnerability. When I first began to write and to organize—as a journalist, an editor of a zine I co-founded, and a member of a socialist party, all in Pakistan—I was wrecked with anxiety and self-doubt that took me years to manage. The academic world in Britain and the world of journalism and political organizing in Pakistan can be disturbingly alike. So when a European editor says I am “too Pakistani” to be a journalist, a foreign correspondent dismisses my work because it’s a bit too “workers unite,” a senior male journalist tells me and my female colleague that he doesn’t want “cunts” to write op-eds in his paper, or “comrades” say it is time to “get over” that sexist thing that happened, it becomes clear that the brick walls of racism, classism, and sexism are remarkably alike wherever you run into them. This is not to say that all bruises are the same. But where most people see Britain and Pakistan as defined by cultural difference, those who linger on the multiple margins of the normative and the powerful find themselves marked by bruises that look oddly similar.

I realize now that my surprise at Ahmed’s apprehension came less from deeply shared experiences—not just between me and her, but between her and her readers—and more from the place we had given these wounds in our politics. So when Ahmed eventually got back to me, less than two months after she originally said no to my request to host the launch of her new book, I was unprepared for what was to follow. We had weeks of back and forth emails and plans that were replanned and rehashed; I witnessed a peculiar sensitivity to the day she would finally speak after 10 months of near silence. At first, I thought that the jumpiness was a case of cold feet: a hibernating scholar who was on edge about coming into the light again. I realize now that it was the wear and tear of the past many years manifesting itself. I came to realize that the brilliant, fiery, shining Sara Ahmed is just as fragile as the rest of us — and that this fragility is the condition of her rage.

There is something uncanny about the timing of Sara Ahmed’s book. At a time when cocksure, orange-hued politicians of the far right are being elected into office and those of us in the opposition are struggling to articulate a response, Ahmed’s feminist call to arms is revolutionary because it recognizes that those who emerge as brittle in worlds not made for them may be our saving grace. Ahmed’s new book provides an explanation of the whole, of the dystopia that the West is today, as well as a political vision for the way forward — precisely because it is a book on how to live a feminist life and build a feminist world. As Ahmed says early on in Living a Feminist Life: “Feminism needs to be everywhere because feminism is not everywhere.”

Ahmed gifts us words that we may have difficulty finding for ourselves. She begins by acknowledging the sense that something is awry: “A gut has its own intelligence,” she writes in the opening pages of her new feminist guide. “A feminist gut might sense something is amiss.” What is amiss, she argues, is that some bodies, some ways of being, fit like hands in the glove that is an institution, while others have to shuffle about to make room for themselves. Those who do not have to spend extra energy fitting in have privilege: The entitlements of being white, upper-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, and male mean having more energy, or not having to spend extra energy, in institutions that do not shelter us all in quite the same way. Frequently, Ahmed argues, that privilege is built on the backs of others. Maids, cleaners, and caregivers become the invisible backbone, doing the low-paid work necessary for our existence and our reproduction. It is particular types of people—people with privilege—who can afford to pay their way out of the everyday, repetitive grind of low-valued labor and who, while getting in and getting ahead, block the way for others.

The world, she argues, is a very busy crowd where everyone is going in the same direction, and where those who willfully do not go along or are unable to go along are either shoved and pushed or slowed down because they are unwelcome. To not fit into institutions, into the worlds of power and privilege, means to be a misfit. Quoting the critical disability scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Ahmed says a misfit is like “a square peg in a round hole”: “A misfit occurs when the environment does not sustain the shape and function of the body that enters it.” Who is and is not a misfit is not wholly random: Structures establish some bodies as more vulnerable and fragile than others.

It is the resistance of the crowd and the hardness of the institutions that do not fit that bruise us and sometimes shatter us. Of course, some of us try to bend ourselves backwards to move forward within these institutions, by turning ourselves into willing and resilient participants, but this very process may just reveal the misfits that we are. Fidgeting makes you look out of place and reminds you that you are not supposed to be there in the first place. Or we could not move at all, and remain in place by never entering spaces we are not supposed to be. Ahmed says that demands made of us—to stop making a fuss, to get along, to get over it, to put up with it—turn out to be a moral technology, a technology of governance. The onus is placed on those who are being bruised—who are seen as hysterical, emotional, irrational, damaged, broken—and not on that which is bruising. The fragile, broken, shattered bodies that are a consequence of structures become the causes of the pain to which they are subjected.

For Ahmed, however, it is precisely in this shattering that feminism is born. At the start of a keynote at the end of November 2015, she said, “The histories that bring us to feminism are often the histories that leave us fragile.” It is not that shattering is a preferred condition; it is that it is almost always a necessary condition. Through a series of scattered vignettes from her own life and selected revisitations of feminist classics—Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss—Ahmed shows us why she thinks of feminism as a fragile archive of bodies that are shattered and splattered because of the hard structures they run up against.

Feminism, then, is the process of gathering the shards that have been broken off when we run up against these walls. “Perhaps when you put the pieces back together you are putting yourself back together,” Ahmed writes. It is during this remaking of ourselves that we realize the importance of remaking the world. For Ahmed, as for myself and I suspect many others who have come to feminism, the moment when the world is reapprehended and reinhabited is an enchanted moment. The sexual innuendos, the cocky and overconfident men who never thought you quite understood a point, the guilt at never being good enough or smart enough, the sense that heads turn when you walk into the room because you do not quite belong—these are not the story of our own personal failures, but of a world that was never made for us.

This realization does not come without a price. When you begin to speak up and point out the structured barriers, you can be cast as hysterical: too much, too intense, too reactive. As Ahmed says: “When you expose a problem, you become a problem.” Feminism, instead of racism, sexism, classism, becomes the unwanted interruption. It is from this experience that Ahmed brings in the term killjoy: In pointing out that things can be different, feminists are accused of being buzzkills. Those of us who have been called feminazis or felt the tension in a room where the f-word is mentioned know how it feels to be the cause of discomfort, even anger. Ahmed argues that it is these accusations of killing joy—not just in the lives of others, but in a feminist’s own life—that the feminist must fully embrace.

After all, as Audre Lorde, one of Ahmed’s feminist teachers, said in response to the idea that she was avoiding being joyful: “Was I really fighting the spread of radiation, racism, woman-slaughter, chemical invasion of our food, pollution of our environment, and the abuse and psychic destruction of our young, merely to avoid dealing with my first and greatest responsibility to be happy?”

If fragility is the condition of Ahmed’s rage, it is also the condition of feminism and radical politics itself: both of its emergence and its ability to endure as a political project.

In the days that have followed the electoral victories of the right around the West and the entrenchment of authoritarian governments around the world, the question of solidarity has reemerged with force. There are those who have argued for the importance of joining forces behind a singular political party or project—a socialist project, the Democratic Party in the United States, or Corbyn’s Labour Party in the United Kingdom—and there are those who have called for unity in difference—through the Black Lives Matter movement, Indigenous communities, Muslims, women, LGBTQ* rights. The debate is an old one and it reflects the recurring theme of class versus identity, redistributive politics versus recognition politics, and universality versus difference that have plagued socialist, feminist, antiracist, anti-imperialist, and other progressive forces for decades and have come back with renewed vigor. Ahmed does not speak of this debate directly in any part of her book and has been accused of being fully rooted in the latter group. But reading her book provides a tentative vision for a feminist ethics for radical politics that is applicable far beyond what is traditionally considered the domain of feminism.

Ahmed argues that the fragility from which the possibility of feminism is born is simultaneously a fragility to which we must remain attentive and, in some senses, loyal. The point is not to recreate another hard structure that produces another norm in which all do not fit. In fact, Ahmed warns against feminist movements that become too rigid, for instance those that exclude trans* women as women or, alternately, those who demonize feminists who point out differences between women; she urges the reemergence of the killjoy in such moments to destroy structures yet again. Unlike the brick walls of the master’s house in institutions of privilege and power, feminist dwellings must be built of a lighter material that give space for movement.

The centrality of brokenness as a condition of feminism, politics, even being is brought home in some lines of poetry that Lorde recited in 1977 in Chicago, dedicated to Winnie Mandela, who was imprisoned at the time:

Broken down gods survive
in the crevasses and mudpots
of every beleaguered city
where it is obvious
there are too many bodies
to cart to the gallows.
and our uses have become
more important than our silence
. . .
and our labor
has become more important
than our silence

Our labor has become
more important
than our silence.

It is at a moment of shattering and splintering that feminism is, or can be, born: as a powerful and dangerous army of broken-down gods.