“I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now—in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life—expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist.”
Tackling a racial gap in breast cancer survival is an article on the New York Times website that draws attention to the detail,
Despite 20 years of pink ribbon awareness campaigns and numerous advances in medical treatment that have sharply improved survival rates for women with breast cancer in the United States, the vast majority of those gains have largely bypassed black women.
It focuses on Memphis where financial barriers to many poor, black women attaining healthcare are plentiful and where ‘many black women …do not seek health care at all.’ The article concentrates on socio-cultural-economic reasons for the racial gap in breast cancer survival, but the comments beneath continue a separate discussion about the lack of research and treatment for triple negative breast cancer, which supposedly is more prevalent in black women and is more aggressive and has a higher recurrence rate. Does drawing racial distinctions between different types of a disease reify and re-inscribe certain biological categories of race, or does it constitute an humanitarian ‘affirmative action’ that rectifies the time and funding deficiency for illnesses that predominantly affect non-white patients?
Challenge Rises to Pakistan’s Breast Cancer Taboos is another article that looks at non-Western, non-White cases of breast cancer, by Associated Press.
It outlines the stigma associated with breast cancer in Pakistani society,
The word breast is associated with sexuality instead of health and many view it as immoral for women to go to the hospital for screenings or discuss it even within their family.
It suggests that female role models play a significant role in detaching cancer from its taboos, raising awareness, and increasing survival. In particular, breast cancer survivor and prominent Pakistani politician Fehmida Mirza.
Parallels can be found in 1970s USA when the disease entered the mainstream with public figures such as Shirley Temple Black, Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller revealing their diagnoses. Both breast cancer patients and the media gave them credit for bringing the disease into the open and saving lives: a woman writing to Ford in 1974 said: ‘I thank God and you that I found it in time.’
Both these articles address a pervasive and long-standing assumption that breast cancer is a disease of, to use a nineteenth-century term, ‘civilisation.’ In popular imagination it is a twentieth-century disease, one that affects the Western, the wealthy, the white. My PhD research denies its modern character, and these articles go some way to dismiss the ethnocentrism and eurocentrism that is so prevalent in current discourse about the disease, and particularly in current advocacy and awareness campaigns:
The Medical Officer of Health Reports for London, from 1848 to 1972, provide statistical data about births, deaths and diseases and give historians a unique insight into day-to-day life in the capital.
They have been photographed cover-to-cover and turned into text using Optical Character Recognition (OCR). They are arranged by date and by borough, and individual diseases are fully searchable. ‘Breast Cancer’ throws up more than 993 results across 711 reports – intimidating stuff…
History is, for many, an identity forming activity, and it has long been central to feminism and the women’s liberation movement. From its inception in the 1960s and 1970s, feminist history in particular has helped us to “find answers and guides for [female] lives and struggles”. It has, in the words of historian Linda Gordon “a political aspect” and it was “created by a social movement for women’s liberation with a sharp political critique of the whole structure of our society.” The idea was that feminist history would transform not only women’s view of history, but of themselves as politically engaged actors.
The feminists of the second-wave made the history of women central to female identity. Similarly, the history of feminism has become central to my own feminist identity, and I think the movement as a whole can benefit from seeing itself as one moment connected by a long historical development. Not only in order to pay homage to our predecessors, but to critically assess their work and continually recast our own aims and assumptions.
The event in question, ‘In Conversation with the Women’s Liberation Movement’ put on by the History of Feminism Network and hosted by the British Library, was an ideal forum in which to explore and work through some of this assessment. Comprised of various panels on issues of Feminist History, Reproductive Choice, Race, Sexualities and Class and Work, it set up dialogue between young feminist academics and activists and women who participated in the women’s liberation movement of the ’60s and ’70s. The first two sessions – Feminist History and Reproductive Choice – started slowly, covering ground that I felt was not particularly engaging. Besides, my question was never fully answered – a problem that recurred throughout the day, with speakers departing on tangents rather than actually responding to the audience’s issues and queries.
The session on Race, however, picked up the pace. Unlike the first two, the academic’s questions were well chosen – broad enough to evoke interesting responses, but focused to prevent deviation. The speakers were particularly inspiring. Gail Lewis and Amrit Wilson handled questions from both the academics and the audience with masterful clarity, sensitivity and insight. Lewis in particular brought out issues relating to trans* women and carefully navigated problems surrounding intersectionality, both past and present.
From participating in online and ‘real life’ feminist forums, I expected the Race session to be the inevitable point of conflict – reflecting the complicated and frequently embarrassing relationship between feminism and racism. Instead, tensions arose in the Sexualities post-panel discussion. Frustratingly, questions revolved around misunderstandings and confusion, rather than any of the more real criticisms one could make about the choice of panel and their statements. The issue of trans* rose again, and it became increasingly clear that the day was bereft without a panel specifically on gender identity. Discussions of race had, encouragingly, been threaded through all of the other panels, only in Sexualities was there no mention. This omission was brought out by the audience, and frankly exacerbated by the panel’s response. All too often in conferences like these, questions from the floor are answered with no remit for response from the original questioner. While by no means perfect, the event was fluid enough for Amrit Wilson and Sue O’Sullivan – a member of the Sexualities panel – to engage. This engagement, however, indicated that issues surrounding race remain misunderstood and clumsily handled. O’Sullivan directed her attention away from precisely those aspects of Wilson’s talk that the latter wanted white feminists to address.
Finally, the panel on Class and Work. Both speakers were adept, eloquent and empowering. They elicited much applause. That neither were themselves working class was baffling, however both addressed this failing and the focus of their discussion circled instead around Socialist Feminism. This was the talk that most instantly resonated with my own understanding of feminism and my own moral compass. It struck a chord that the other sessions – no doubt in part my fault – fell short of doing.
Perhaps this shortcoming, at least for me, was for two reasons. First, this was an event designed to bridge generations: ‘Intergenerational Histories of Second Wave Feminism’. However, the tensions between these two waves of feminism were enduring and tangible. They permeated the discussion, resulting in a toxicity that was difficult to overcome. The younger generation visibly bristled at semantics, disliking even quoted archaisms. There was an obvious discord between issues that had been something of a work in progress for second wave feminists – things they had worked out painfully and gradually – and the same issues that seem obvious to the feminists of the twenty-first century and the age of Tumblr. Not that we have it all figured out, or get it right all the time, but they are nonetheless apparent as issues from the get-go.
Second, the academic nature of the conference echoes issues that the feminists of the second-wave brought up, but has since perhaps been lost – or subsumed beneath concerns about class and its associated identities. In the opening issue of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (1975) the editors wrote: “We came together over a year ago to found a journal which we hoped would begin to bridge the gaps between university and community women…after all, university women lead real lives in the ‘real world,’ and women outside the university make valuable contributions to learning.” Thus, a central component of 1970s feminism was the active combination of the academic and the lay – an attempt to unify female understanding of both historical and contemporary issues of women. I am an academic, I approach things largely from an academic perspective. However, for a non-academic conference open to the public, the event was overwhelmingly scholarly in its terms and focus. I don’t think it is desirable, or even possible, for someone to be a feminist academic and not simultaneously be an activist. However, it is most definitely possible – and indeed it is the majority situation – to be an activist and not an academic.
The day posed more questions than solutions. But, that is how a vibrant and alive movement should be. Feminism is frequently accused of infighting, of failing to find a coherent voice. Yes, it must learn to speak to, and on the part of, more women’s experiences of life and oppression. However, those that suggest we should speak in unison are damaging the life-blood of the movement. The numerical majority of the population cannot be requested to agree on every aspect – insistence to the contrary rejects female capacity to debate productively. The conference, despite its discord and disunity, was inspiring. It felt like touching, palm to palm, with women from across decades – joining in a movement, a sisterhood.
Today, on International Women’s Day, David Cameron is set to announce the largest international investment ever to fight Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Earlier this week Lynne Featherstone MP laid out ambitious plans to eradicate FGM within a generation. But this Government initiative – a hugely welcome one – must not forget the long-running efforts of charities and the international diaspora here at home.
FGM, as Featherstone recognises, is not a problem confined to Africa. It is thought to affect up to 140 million girls and women worldwide, with 24,000 girls at risk each year in the UK.
While Governmental support and funding is an essential component of efforts to combat FGM, it’s vital to remember that the statements released this week are a response to decades of activism on the part of international charities and organisations.
National and international policy provides a legislative framework to be used as a tool to abolish FGM. But alone it is not sufficient. Leyla Hussein, who comes from a FGM practicing community and runs the prevention charity Daughters of Eve, asks that the government invite wider consultation from those who have worked against FGM . “Speak to women like me”, she says, “I know what I’ve gone through.” Hussein worries that “frequently victims of FGM are used just to tell the story, but not as part of the decision making process”.
Nevertheless, the Government’s statements this week will no doubt help provide personal suffering with a political platform.
They will bring intimate issues, frequently shrouded in taboo and silence, into the public arena and allow women the opportunity to articulate their own thoughts and feelings. Take for example Madina, who appears in The Cutting Tradition, a film by FGM charity SafeHands for Mothers: “After I saw the suffering my daughter had to go through”, she says “I decided not to circumcise my granddaughters.”
Voices like Madina’s tell us important things. They make clear this is not an issue that can be subsumed beneath anxieties about upsetting relative cultural values.
The UK government has been wary of being accused of modern-day colonialism under the guise of international development, as Lynne Featherstone admits: “‘FGM has been considered too taboo and, frankly, too difficult to tackle.” But FGM is a child protection issue and a question of violence against women. The government must – and according to international development secretary Justine Greening will – provide programmes that address the complexity of the issue.
For the roots of FGM are complex and numerous. It needs to be understood in context. In the developing world the practice is associated with child marriageand limited female education and economic independence.
That’s why the holistic approach of the programmes announced to coincide with International Women’s Day is so laudable. These programmes include a new partnership with the World Bank to give women access to and control of economic resources in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as issuing guidelines for teachers, social workers and NHS staff here in the UK. Let’s hope that the government makes good on its promise that policy engages constructively with the women who have been victim of FGM and the girls who are at risk, and do as Leyla Hussein implores: “You have this legislation, now use it.”