On Harsha Walia's Expansive Feminism

harsha walia.jpg

I had the pleasure of attending feminist author and activist Harsha Walia’s presentation at this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences and her conversation got me excited to write our first Feminist Feature. Walia co-founded the Vancouver chapter of No one is illegal, her writing has appeared in numerous journals, and she is the author of Undoing Border Imperialisms. Naomi Klein has called her “one of Canada’s most brilliant and effective political organizers.”

The subject of Walia’s Congress talk was “Anti-oppressive Feminisms and Solidarities.” While Walia’s discussion entailed a critique of neoliberal feminism, its broad goal was to initiate a process of imagining and enacting a feminism that reaches beyond theory and helps women to “make sense of their lives.” In other words, to encourage women in the adoption of a feminism that is “not an ideology but an ethical orientation.” In Walia’s view, neoliberal feminism has failed a lot of women in its incapacity to address the concerns of all women in a global context. While this strand of feminism does confront male and cyst priority, it has also worked in conjunction with capitalism and imperialism by implicitly condoning (and I think Walia might go as far as to say promoting) a culture of expendability. While more female CEOs is an admirable goal, this paradigm does not account for the complexity, or the intersectionality, of sexism—the ways gendered violence is experienced in fundamentally different ways by women of colour, indigenous women, poor women, single mothers, trans women. As feminists, how can we expand our networks of solidarity? Or, perhaps the question should also be 'how do we expand our understanding of feminism to make room for these solidarities?'

Walia suggests areas of focus for expanding feminism in the Canadian context:

Criminalization: much attention is paid to justice and policing in the US context and Walia argues that this should also be the case in Canada. Feminist movements must address state violence as a factor in gender discrimination. This includes both systemic violence perpetrated within the prison system and public policies that address violence against women through the increased policing of women’s bodies.

Imperialism and Colonialism:  anyone disturbed by Stephen Harper’s comment about women wearing the niqab while being sworn in—his objection was that this is “not how we do things here”—should also be prepared to query the ways imperialist attitudes may have seeped into white feminism. We should be mindful of the implications of promoting a singular view of feminism as sexual expressive, liberally autonomous, and secular.

Capitalism: The Globe and Mail recently reported that the gender wage gap in Canada was more than twice the global average. Shocking, right? This is partially because women receive about $8,000 less annually for the same work, but also because much of what is considered “women’s work” (ie. associated with the domestic—nursing, retail, service industry, child care etc.) is underpaid and undervalued. Walia also points out that the entry of white middle class women into the wage economy has occurred at the expense of other women, notably migrant workers—this means both women from underprivileged communities in the Global North and Third World labourers. The increasing freedom of some women depends on the indentured labour of others. Feminism should not just be about class mobility since capitalism is limited by the categories of work that it characterizes as “productive labour.” How can we begin to value that which the wage economy does not? Walia suggests what she calls an “affective economy,” a principle that values the caretaking work of a mother, for example, that is inherently outside of the wage economy but that is fundamental to life and the functioning of society.

Her critiques are focused on untangling the current feminist rhetoric of independence (which reasserts Enlightenment ideals with strong ties to imperialism and capitalism) and inserting interdependence in its place. An expansive feminism emphasizes the ways that women need each other.

You can follow Harsha Walia on twitter @HarshaWalia. You can also read an excellent interview with Walia from the Feminist Wire archives here: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/03/interview-harsha-walia/

Image from Caelie_Frampton


Claire Farley is a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa and co-editor of Canthius. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in ArcThe PuritanOttawater, (parenthetical), among other places. She is also the 2016 recipient of Arc's Diana Brebner Prize.