A response to ‘The age of the feminist influencer’



Social media feminist influencers play an important role in reminding us offline and institutionalised feminists that the ‘who’ in feminist movement building matters less than the ‘how’
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If there is something that we all have to admit, it is the fact that we have always had influencers. Less than 10 years ago we had political, ideological and yes, feminist influencers who too had followers; on listservs and mailing lists and academic journals where their ideas held what they thought were the building blocks of an African feminist movement. There has always been a handful of African feminists that form and influence what other feminists think and feel about the shape-shifting nature of our contexts and movements.

Often, if not always, these few feminists and activists were located within influential organisations and institutions that then in turn magnified their influence or vice versa. What these iterations of influence then did, was (whether deliberately or not) create a gate-keeping mechanism, that left out a lot of younger activists and feminists, as well as people that worked outside institutions and organisations. Proximity to an influential feminist or an organisation affiliated with said feminist(s), made all the difference in determining who did and who did not have access to what spaces and resources. These influencers were referred to as ‘leaders’ back then, but the critical premise still holds true.

I remember, 15 or so years ago, as a young university student and a budding feminist hungry for courses, conferences, meetings and feminist gatherings, my applications to attend specially created feminist spaces were consistently rejected. Who were my references? My sociology and psychology lecturers did not cut it and neither did any other women or activists that inspired me. None of them were feminists. I was not affiliated with any ‘known’ and ‘respected’ feminist organisations in Southern Africa and the small girl’s empowerment project that I was co-running was not ‘feminist enough’. This all changed when I began working for an influential feminist organisation in Southern Africa. In the space of a month there was no conference, no meeting, no feminist pow-wow, both within Africa and outside it that I could not gain access to by simply stating my organisational affiliation. This organisation was then led by a highly regarded and respected feminist influencer, and my interest, passion or even skill and ability to participate actively in a space suddenly felt less important than my proximity to this sphere of influence.

While riding this wave of new found access and acceptance by proxy, it was hard to see how I too was participating in the gatekeeping that individuals and feminist activists outside institutions face. Fungai Machirori, founder of the feminist organisation Her Zimbabwe adds another dimension to the dynamics of organising in African feminist spaces. Fungai writes about an encounter where ‘… An older feminist who I held in high esteem came to me at a meeting one day. Curtly, she asked me why I had not sought the buy-in of the women’s movement before going about and setting up a platform. I was perplexed and embarrassed. Was there a procedure that one was supposed to follow prior to starting up an initiative? Had I flouted the rules?i‘ There is an unspoken desire or requirement to be ‘allowed’ to feminist in a particular way. One can argue that this is how we work in Africa-that you need the permission of the area chief to open a kiosk at the intersection of Main Road and Chipera Avenue. But what this does, whether as protocol or not, is it sends a clear message that our feminism needs to look a certain way or it cannot belong. And over the years our belonging and the legitimacy of our activism and feminism has come by way of institutional affiliation. This subtle, but far reaching exclusion of unaffiliated and uninstitutionalised feminists and activists is still a frustration, but now, we have the internet and with it, we have social media.

Times, as will always happen, have changed.

Influence, no matter what we call it ̶ this ability to command attention, space, time, resources, whether on a global scale or a local one ̶ has always been, and will always be about power. This analysis of power, and locating it not in the who or the where but in the why is what Jessica Horn’s opinion piece is missing. It is unfair to simplify this collecting and wielding of power by individuals that identify as feminist and their many followers on social media into an obsession for the narcissistic and self-absorbed. Yes, it is easy to see how social media feminist influencers place themselves firmly at the centre of a collective politic, contradicting what we intended to be a shared and a co-created feminist movement. But if it looks like a feminist, walks like a feminist, talks like a feminist and says it’s a feminist, is it not a feminist?

I see this uptake of feminist language, representation and space on social media as a way for the unaffiliated and uninstitutionalised to gain some credibility in what is still a very heavily policed and controlled African feminist space. Horn asks of these influencers ̶We are not really sure how they came to represent us, but there they are speaking about us (or is it for us?) on Africa policy platforms, mingling at events with dubious heads of state and other representatives of the ruling patriarchy and requesting us to “like” it because, well, proximity to mainstream power.ii‘ I too have in the past asked the same question of the small collection of feminist voices and faces that time and again occupied space and voice in local and international spaces speaking for ‘us’. We, and I too implicate myself, have been these people, many times, token Africans and lesbians and feminists and trans* humxns in international conferences and panels where we spoke for everyone, without caring who ‘everyone’ was. We had inhabited a certain kind of power and privilege that easily made us blind to the replication of the same oppressive power dynamics that we point fingers at. We assumed too easily that our political arguments for feminism and whatever other social justice cause we represented was the voice of the majority.

It is clear by now that one of my critiques of Horn’s opinion piece is that there is nothing new afoot. That the culprit here is not social media and the devious way in which it shifts the focus of a politic away from the ‘we’ to the ‘I’. These dynamics have existed long since before I started working and participating in institutionalised feminist and social justice spaces over ten years ago. We are all complicit in creating what we think is a deviation from the intention of our feminist movement and voice that manifests as individuals presenting themselves as a movement, and not the other way around. What this social media feminist influencer has done is found a space, and occupied it. Legitimacy now looks different for this social media influencer. Buy-in is not an invitation to a conference or employment at an institution, it is retweets and followers and a verified badge. It is people’s people ‘fetching’ each other online once a ‘fave’ feels slighted. It is also plagiarism, it is also misinformation. Issues last as long as a hashtag does, and soon they are off to the next one.

Movements and movement building looks very different today. For all our criticism (I too get exhausted by the fleeting way in which we mobilise for change online) we also have to ask, would we rather they don’t exist? Or how can we invite these new, tech savvy, social media influencers that we think need ‘a commitment to the rigor that our visions and practices of freedom absolutely require‘ to our offline gatherings and spaces to share and learn? One big difference between these two approaches is that it is cheaper to be a social media feminist influencer online than it is to organise offline. Social media is faster and there is autonomy of voice where your platform is yours and your words your own. There’s a freedom that social media feminists experience that we cannot inhabit offline and within institutions. Social media feminists are not afraid to insult, and offend and often, irritate. This all on its own is quite refreshing.

I remember being in awe and complete admiration of Activist Dr. Stellah Nyanzi, years ago when she spoke so poetically about her vagina and vulva and how she would use her words and all parts of her body to bring down the tyranny of Yoweri Museveni on Facebook. The internet and social media made that possible. Because (and I stand corrected) the only other space for Dr. Nyanzi to express herself would have had to be in a carefully worded, thoroughly edited, slightly sanitized chapter in a feminist book or a paper in a feminist journal. Social media is the bottom door of a full silo flung open, with thousands and millions of messages, ideas, stories, feelings, everything rushing at you all at once. At its very core and intention, social media and the internet, offers us all a freedom to express ourselves, even our most problematic expressions, which is a freedom we must fiercely defend. I would in fact argue that we need more such voices to drown out the noise of misogyny online.

A problem with social media feminism and influencer culture that I will concede to is that it sharply shifts the focus of our work to transform oppressive structures and institutions into a heartbreaking obsession with ‘who is occupying so much space and influence (and power) and how did they get here?‘ These questions are valid. Legitimacy is important, but how we demonstrate or show how we gained this legitimacy needs a conversation. Many old and older feminists found our politics literally through blood, sweat and tears. We fought, with our bodies and minds to be seen, respected, and recognised for trying to move this once immovable rock called patriarchy and capitalism and heterosexual hegemony. From where we sit, it feels too easy, for someone to gain access to a feminist space and use our words, and thoughts and ideas, when really, we don’t know who they are. But again it should not matter. Because this is the nature of ideas, of popular politics which feminism has become. It must change. Our intentions and our vision for what a feminist future looks like is not the same. The diversity of our realities and histories create kaleidoscope of possibilities for what a feminist future can look like. We must, sooner rather than later, let go of the idea that how feminism is being articulated today is not our vision for the feminist future we work so hard for.

No matter how our ideas and iterations of feminism manifest, we should never shift our focus from the issues, we should not forget that this same internet where self-centered selfie feminists occupy space and power is itself a site of oppression, and the existence of this voice, whether it speaks for us or not, is resistance. The internet, and social media in particular has the effect of a microscope, where we stop looking at the whole petri dish of fungus and follow around this one bacteria. Our fight should always be against structures of social, cultural, political, economic and environmental power that oppress us and force us to either hoard space and resources or carve it our for ourselves and on our own terms.

Now, more than ever, we need solidarity with and for our selfie-taking, natural hair care vlogging, feminist fashion selling, anything-goes social media feminist influencers. We don’t have enough of them, and the few that dare make popular a difficult politic are facing a considerable amount of backlash. Feminists that dare, the best way they know how, to occupy whatever space and influence they can, even when what is being sold is Feminism Lite, we must stand in solidarity with them. The quiet, introverted and offline feminists can co-exist with the loud, self-absorbed online feminists. We have to believe that we dream of a feminist future where we take turns to stand in the hot sun, and believe it or not, the twitter feminists too are doing this blood, sweat and tears work.

What the feminist influencers have done is open the curtains in a dimly lit room, allowing us to see the dust in the corners of our house. Now that we see this dust, the work left to do is to clean it, not to call for a meeting to ask who is responsible for opening the curtains. Thank you Jessica for moving this conversation away from what might have been a hashtag that becomes redundant once Beyonce changes the colour of her hair.
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This article has been written in response to and in coversation with the article ‘The age of the feminist influencer: https://mg.co.za/article/2019-08-12-the-age-of-the-influencer

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Short bio:
@sistaseeker is a feminist and a writer that lives in Kenya but loves all over Africa. She loves African women, is inspired by African women, and has been made by African women.

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Writer’s Block.


Image result for african women lino art

Source: https://www.pinterest.com/rwgrantjr/linocut/

Sometimes blank pages stare back at me like the open arms of an unloved lover waiting for that embrace. That touch and taint that will soothe an ache buried deep under resentment and longing. My fingers freeze over keyboards like a surgeon about to perform a craniotomy. Where did the words go?

I search the dying embers of memory to find that once, not long ago, words were a lover loved, wanted and desired. Lay flat and spread out before me like a buffet or a wedding feast. Words, whole words fell off bountiful tables and overfilled plates. I swam in words and washed my face in them. They would hit me hard like stray birds in the street and I tripped over them when I woke up and held them when I slept. And then, like rain, like dried up rivers in a drought and migrating birds in winter, the words left me. Alone, quietly desperate, silently longing.

And I began to wonder-were those words mine? Had I borrowed them off the lips of my lover while she kissed me? Did the love we made give birth to these words that I treated so carelessly, lying between our soaked thighs and trembling cunts? Did we laugh out words together-her one syllable and me another and now, without her-without us- there is silence and half made words and aborted efforts at completing a sentence. Maybe they weren’t words. Maybe it was her. Maybe it was me with her. Maybe it was me. I tried to step back and watch my life- like a movie or a funny commercial and try to find that moment. That exact moment when words were made. And I could not find this moment.

On cold, dark days I longed for the water that made these words grow into trees and shade me from my pain. On these days I longed for her too. I longed for the magic and witchcraft of her laughter buried in my collarbone like seeds. I longed for the fertility of words she seemed to bring into my life. But these blank pages remain. Flickering and cajoling me into trying something. Anything. That unloved lover that will take a beating because it means you touched them. Because it means you felt something for them even if it was anger.

And slowly-like shy children peering from behind their mother’s skirts, some words returned.  I gave in to the taunting. To the slow glow and wink of blank pages that begged for anything, even pain in place of pleasure to be marked upon them because then they became more than just that-empty forgotten spaces begging to be loved or hated into something more than what they are.

These words still play hide and seek with me. And I can’t help but wonder whether she makes words between her thick brown thighs, and if she has some words to spare because there are pages to be filled. There are stories waiting to be told.

Take me to church.


 

You lie in the space between complete faith and unmovable doubt, the space that no words have been found for, or colours given names. That shade of pink and orange and lilac and lavender that cannot be recreated in labs or on computers. The space that even science leaves untouched, because not every bubble we chase we want to burst. Even scientists fall in love. Even atheists need a god to prove wrong. The spaces between yes and no, between here and there, you sit there, like the sun, giving life light.

You think I am a believer because you make me believe. In you. In this. In us. And I do believe, with the faith of saints and the ashy knees of pilgrims kneeling at far away altars. I come back to you, again and again. Each time with more courage, more gratitude. Unafraid to love you in big ways, the sun and stars that you are, you need a sky. You are your own sky, but my love the light you are in my life, you might never know.

And the sometimes magic that your breath in my ear feels like. How the brush of your skin against mine feels like a hundred books I have never read nor will I ever write. In moments of complete doubt, your smile, full lips interrupted by perfect teeth, remind me of far away sunsets and closer sunrises. You make me love rain and cold as much as I love the sun, because, there’s tomorrow.

Touching you is benediction and kissing you catechism. Your hair a rosary. I’d count the strands of hair on your head, but I have better things to do. Like kiss you again. And hold you again. And fall in love with you again. And let the memory of you on my skin soak into my own so that I can wear you in my day, find you in the soft skin under my breasts and the tender spaces between my thighs.

For everything else I doubt, and I doubt a lot, I know, with the sureness of the creases on my right palm, with the guarantee of a sunrise, even if i’m not there to experience it, I know that I love you. In every way love is known to mean. In big and small ways. In scary and sexy ways. You sit in the space between my heart and spleen that has no name. You lie there, inside some unnamed part of my body and make this load called life so much lighter.

Mother


Mother is a hard word to say.

My own child calls me by my first name, never mother, never mama. Only in the moments when other children call their mother’s mama, does he try and call me mother. Then I call him son. And we both giggle, an untold joke between the softest part of me and the hardest part of him. A curious dance with no music or movement, just careless and careful navigation of feelings, both of us completely needing and scared to harm the other.

But I am his mother.

I saw him pulled from my insides, numbed from the waist down, in a freezing theatre, in the beginning of May. His skin grey, is hands white, his face angry, livid, upset. Disappointed? Is this it? Is this what I’m here for? Are these the people that will watch over me? Grow me like pumpkins in a desert?

He is my child, even though the only thing he has that’s mine is my skin.

Patchy. Ten shades of brown and the odd eczema rash. But he has my smile too. My lust for life. My appetite for people. My brittle heart, easily broken, and mended, and broken again, misshapen, cracked and leaking. He oozes sadness so easily. And love so quickly. Strangers are his friends. Friends are his brothers and sisters. Everything loves him. Until it doesn’t. He forgets pain as fast as I remember it.

I don’t know why I won’t let him call me mother. He knows I’m his mother, I say. This is truth. But what will calling me mother do? Is it an incantation? A spell. A reminder of my own mother, that stands on the other side of a wall of silence that I erected, brick by brick? How do I become a mother without one?

There’s nothing to save you from the violence in the world.


My thoughts about Orlando have turned to soup.
It’s sad.
It’s heartbreaking.
But, with tears in our eyes and pain in our hearts if we step back from the horror and violence and think. We live in SUCH a violent world. And this violence is inescapable.
It is bred at home, in schools, churches, mosques, temples and shrines. Grown like fruit in topical places or dry places or really, really cold places. This violence comes from somewhere, and we are not safe anywhere. None of us is.
Not the gays or the lesbians or the trans or the straight, crooked, holy, kind and mean. Not the women or children, or men, rabiis, imams, pastors, priests, teachers, senators, gardeners, farmers or cooks. Not new born babies, or really old people, Not white, pink, pale, male or female. Certainly not black, or brown, or beige. Not Americans. Not Africans.
There is nothing that you are, nothing that you own, nothing that you know and nothing that you don’t-that will protect you from violence.
When we realise this, really, really, honestly, completely realise this-we will STOP giving it names, giving it levels and degrees, giving it heirarchies, that there are types of violence that we can live with, and types that we can’t.
There should be no violence that is okay. Not one insult, not one slap, not one Bible verse, or Quran script that says it is OK to act violently. Not one.
We cannot continue to live our lives as if all that matters is ME. Just me and my oppressions and my suffering. This is about violence-in all it’s manifestations.
And time came when we allowed the discomfort of truth to make us act and react in ways that show that we need to get to the bottom of this for everyone.
2016-I think it’s enough. You have taken so many people from us. The family that had to bury all their three children in one go because of a drunken driver here in Kenya. The tens of Africans that continue to be swallowed by the sea as we flee ‘home’. The bombs. The bullets. The stabbed lovers. The shot ones. Our earth is choke full of dead bodies now.
It’s enough.

Cold Coffee


The memory of your love sits at the bottom of my heart, like the dregs of a good cup of coffee, long gone cold, almost bitter and now tasteless.

But still I swirl the coarse remnants, round and round, mixing the now too sweet sugar, water and saliva into something I’m convinced will taste like the beginning.

That this end will remind me of what hot coffee tasted like, and will help me maybe want to order another cup.

So I drink these dregs, I suck them in through my teeth like honey.

Like it’s the sweetest thing I’m having today, and allow the tepid bitterness to sit and swirl in my mouth until it becomes warm again, until the sugar mixes in with the coarse grains of coffee, and I swallow.

The emptiness of the cup before me echoes.

I want to spit the last bit of coffee back into the cup, but it stays swallowed, travelling down to warmer parts of me.

In an hour I forget that I had dregs of coffee.

In a day I forget how they tasted.

In two weeks I swear off coffee completely.

But six months later I still remember what that first sip tasted like.