Last Tuesday, I contributed to a roundtable discussion organised by the Agender Society at SOAS, University of London, entitled "Our Bodies - Our Choices: Feminist Perspectives on Reproductive Rights."
We discussed who controls women's reproductive decisions, and how women respond to and resist such attempts to control their bodies. Particular attention was paid to legal and practical restrictions on women's access to abortion, and how the effects of these restrictions are experienced differently by women from various backgrounds - class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality, among others.
In my contribution, I focused on the politics of abortion in Israel. I provided an overview of the gap between the legal restrictions on, and widespread access to, abortion in Israel. I then explained this gap in terms of the clash between religious and nationalist policymakers opposed to abortion, and women’s health and family welfare advocates who support access, as well as feminists resisting attempts to render women’s wombs national vessels. I also provided some comparative perspective on other states' abortion policies.
Here we are in action ---
My fellow speakers included:
Susuana Antubam, the University of London Union's Women's Officer, a founding member of StudentFems London and a member of the NUS Women's Campaign Committee.
Mara Clarke, the director of Abortion Support Network, a charity that provides financial assistance, accommodation and confidential, non-judgemental information to women forced to travel from Ireland and Northern Ireland and pay privately for abortions in England.
Didi Rossi from Queer Strike, a grassroots, multi-racial, lesbian bi, trans*, queer women’s group campaigning for economic, legal and human rights.
Lieta Vivaldi, a researcher and activist from Chile.
Our chair was Rosario Fernández Ossandón, a PhD Student at Goldsmiths University specialising in sociology, feminist theory, nationalism, gender, race, and migration.
Though the discussion was informative, wide-ranging and fascinating, some tensions did become evident, both in the room itself and on Twitter afterwards. The latter revealed that some attendees felt that some of the contributors - myself included - had not been as aware as they could and should have been of their structural privileges. As a result, they (we) were not as sensitive as they (we) ought to have been to certain forms of oppression experienced by others both in the room and outside of it. It was also felt by a few of those present that there was some latent though unacknowledged homophobia, especially directed at those presenting as queer.
Some of the Tweets read:
"other than ALL THE PRIVILEGE, some great points were raised."
"Do safe spaces mean nothing? Straightsplaining,white privilege ... no trans discussion."
"Homophobia is very subtle sometimes. The straightsplaining I'm witnessing is a direct result of queer presentation."
My first reaction to these Tweets was to feel offended (at the slur) and annoyed (because it seemed too easy a way to negate certain arguments - i.e. by shooting the messenger rather than critiquing the message). Speaking for myself, I applied the same rigorous standards of evidence and argumentation that I apply to everything and everyone, irrelevant of their background.
Nevertheless, I do intend to carefully and honestly reflect on how I can ensure my tone contributes to creating a safe, inclusive space. And I will endeavour - as I have always done - to remain as vigilantly self-aware as possible regarding my own structural privileges and how these may influence my positions and approaches. No matter how self-aware one considers oneself to be, there is always room for improvement.
Telling those one disagrees with to check their privilege may be a convenient way to avoid having to fully engage with their arguments or provide evidence to support one's own views. Yet, in spite of this, academics, activists and others should strive to remain as cognisant of their structural advantages as possible. Constantly checking one's privilege - however uncomfortable that may be - is essential to that process.
To read an interesting debate on 'checking one's privilege,' check out these two articles:
Louise Mensch: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/30/reality-based-feminism-louise-mensch?guni=Article:in%20body%20link
Laurie Penny: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/31/louise-mensch-privilege-internet