I don’t think I need to point out the obvious but, a lot of feminist discourse on line (particularly in blogs and news) is very US Centric (with perhaps a few exceptions here and there about Canada and the UK). Even the kind of feminism that is not at the center of this mainstream discourse (like womanism, or women’s rights activism focused on race and racism), it is still very much dominated by narratives that are mostly relevant to the US and its sociopolitical realities.
Probably a good part of this is due to language: those of us who blog in English have to contend with the fact that we are outsiders. I always joke I colonized my own language to play in the international feminist leagues. But that’s not the reason why I did it. It was mainly because I needed words. Words I didn’t know and I had to borrow from somewhere, as I was living in a country where my mother tongue was pretty much ineffectual (few Dutch people speak Spanish but almost everyone speaks English with pretty good degrees of fluency and I needed to communicate before I had the chance to properly learn Dutch). So, I turned to English, particularly because fifteen years ago, the Spanish speaking internet was very scarce, fragmented and had no gender related body of work available.
So while my entire education had been bilingual, my politics were very Latin America specific and only based on practice, as were the words I used. When I finished high school, back in the 80’s, there was not such a thing as Gender Studies anywhere in South America (I am unsure whether there is such a thing now, perhaps under another name). And that lack of theory let me tell you, can put you on pretty shaky grounds if you were to attempt to translate literally from one language to another. Because that’s part of the problem I had to contend with: literal translation would have alienated me from feminist politics in ways that took me years to fully understand.
We repeat that words matter. And they do. But for some people, the words they use are the only words they have. So today, when I came across a (very short) post by Athambile Masola asking “is feminism in theory the same as feminism in practice?”, I paused. Because that question is at the heart of my issue with the struggles I encounter trying to convey concepts and ideas across languages and cultures. I have to constantly double check that the words I use, which are relevant and appropriate in South America, could potentially earn me a public call out if I translated them literally into English. Just to give one example, my first hand knowledge of trans* activism was in Buenos Aires, where the preferred word a very good number of trans* folks identify with (at least in activist discourse and awareness related work) is “travesti”, which, if I were to translate literally, would have me talking of “transvestites”! This is not to say “oh woe is me! I need to pay attention!” because really, I SHOULD pay attention. And if I didn’t like it, I could always go and write exclusively in Spanish.
Except, I can’t. Because I no longer know the words to convey the concepts and ideas I learned in English and translating them literally would mean most Spanish speaking people, whose feminism is rooted in practice (remember that part about the lack of gender studies I mentioned above?) would have little idea of what I am talking about. Sure there are many books written by smart Spanish speaking academics who do bring the discourse forward but the majority of South American activism is rooted in political practice and not in discourse. It is worth noting that the Wikipedia article for the word “Interseccionalidad” (Intersectionality) only contains English notes and bibliography and the entire concept is based on English speaking academic work. Even an initiative that is pretty widespread in the US, UK and Canada, like the Hollaback project is creating waves of shock and resistance in Buenos Aires, where mainstream media still tries to come to terms with the mere existence of sexist violence and discourse. Now, this is not to mean that people in Buenos Aires are “backwards” and they do not understand sexist street violence. It just means that the woman who brought the initiative to the city, who, by her own admission, learned about this particular kind of discourse analysis while living in London, didn’t realize the cross cultural implications of literal translations (both in theory and practice).
So what is the answer to these crossroads? How do we contend with the gap between a feminism rooted in practice (where discourse takes little space and words are merely used and hardly analyzed) vs a feminism that works to advance ideas through discourse? I cannot speak for anyone else, but I filled that gap through intuition. I had to trust that my intuition would guide me through hours (by now, probably thousands of them) of research, reading and listening. A gap that I had to fill if I wanted my activism to be effective, both rooted in practice but also advancing ideas through the way we use words. Also, in a way that would help me challenge the North American centrism to convey the kind of politics and practices that are happening right now in the same places where I came to terms with the fact that I was a feminist. Even if I didn’t have enough words to name it.