“Both patriarchy and capitalism benefit from a depoliticised feminist movement”: Towanda Rebels
This article is part of a series of interviews featuring international perspectives on the ramifications of the concept of ‘gender identity’ within public policy. We are grateful to all the women who have agreed to be interviewed. Their perspectives will sometimes disagree, which enriches the series. Most importantly, thank you to Dominican newspaper El Caribe for its commitment to support women’s right to discuss public policy openly and without censorship.
Last week, multinational menstrual products company Always found itself immersed in a great controversy regarding the male period. It turns out that, in June 2019, a trans activist wrote to the company complaining that its pads featured the Venus symbol, a circle and a cross, which is recognised worldwide as the symbol for females. He argued that featuring it amounted to discrimination against men, the multigender people and the non-binaries, because according to him, it is not only women who menstruate.
The company listened to his plea and recently responded: “We are pleased to inform you that starting in December, we will use a new design which will not include the female symbol. We are extremely grateful for perspectives from people like you,” while publicly defending its position as a step towards inclusivity and diversity to the inquiring press.
Also last week, the same company found itself embroiled in a separate controversy which received far less press coverage. Collectives of women in Kenya complained on social media that the menstrual pads which Always produces for the African country are of lesser quality than the ones manufactured for Anglo-Saxon countries. Hundreds of women from other countries such as Pakistan and South Africa joined Kenyan women and also complained that the toxic content of their menstrual pads produced severe skin problems and even cysts. Always responded by stating that all its products are equal in quality and dismissed their complaints. Can you think of any reason for the disparity between the way this multimillion-pound company handled a single trans activist complaint versus the voices of hundreds of women in the Global South?
Feminists the world over will have to re-evaluate some of our positions because people like that trans activist, a female who identifies as a man, demonstrate that machismo and misogyny are attitudes exercised not only by males. And not to be pessimistic, but when not even pads and tampons companies dare to defend that menstruation is a biological function intrinsically connected with the sexed bodies of females, then we might as well just give up on this interview series and start talking about this winter’s baseball season.
This is the climate in which the new generation of women’s rights thinkers and activists are coming of age. Which is why I have decided to interview Zúa Méndez y Teresa Lozano, the gals at Towanda Rebels, a Spanish feminist duo who authored the book ‘#Hola, guerrera: alegatos para la revolución’ (#Hey, warrior: arguments for the feminist revolution)’ and host a popular YouTube channel.
Raquel Rosario Sánchez: Hey, warriors! Thank you so much for granting us this interview. You are social media stars among many young, Spanish-speaking women. How did this come about?
Towanda Rebels: We are both actresses, but aside from that one of us (Zúa) is a humanist and the other one (Teresa) is a journalist. We had to ‘make feminism’ through social media because the women’s rights struggle was left out of our academic curriculum. The great women of our movement were stolen from us, excluded from our history books, but also from our own movement. It is through social media that we got to know the great theorists which feed our activism today.
RRS: In your hugely popular YouTube videos, you criticize prostitution, the exploitation of women for reproductive purposes (surrogacy), labour laws, pop culture, the music industry and gender. Would you say that the sex and gender debate is the most toxic topic within feminism?
TR: The commodification of women’s bodies is the cruelest reproduction of the oppressive system which feminists have denominated ‘gender’. Gender is a school of inequality which categorises us from the moment we are born as either consumers (males) and consumable merchandise (females). There is an evident interest in the pimp lobby to depoliticise the feminist movement, which has always been a collective struggle, in order to turn it into an individualist and neoliberal enterprise in which the myth of ‘free choice’ renders invisible the sexual violence, objectification and commodification of women’s bodies.
If we erase biological sex from our analysis, which is what the sex and gender conflict is about, then we also erase all the violences which we suffer as a result of being born female. Even before gender begins to operate, before the impositions and the stereotypes about what ‘female’ and ‘femininity’ should mean, sex defines our destiny: around the world, girl babies are oftentimes either aborted or less preferable than boy babies. If we deny this reality and the fact that we are oppressed on the basis of our sex, then how do we fight back against these violences?
RRS: I understand that this is the core analysis. But politically speaking, why are so many countries going through such an intense conflict when it comes to the topic of sex, gender and identities?
TR: Because both patriarchy and capitalism have an interest in depoliticising the women’s rights movement. Feminism was growing rapidly and its advancement was shaking the pillars of the system. We have been challenging our economic systems, our social care systems, historical narratives, the public space, the media and the advertising industry… absolutely everything. But if we reach the conclusion that being a woman is merely a feeling, a voluntary decision, then we depoliticise this fight and women become responsible for our own oppression.
RRS: In your opinion, are the divisions within the feminist movement on the topic of sex and gender a generational problem? Is this a matter of younger women having a more up-to-date understanding of these issues?
TR: It is undeniable that the younger generation is more permeable to theories which centre identity above all else. But we argue that this is because younger women have been bombarded by this discourse through TV series, movies, music and social media references. While feminist theory is not even represented in their lives or the media they consume… other than to be used as slogans to sell T-shirts.
RRS: But some of the most ardent defenders of this reification of gender as an identity are feminist organisations themselves. They argue that this is a human rights issue. Could it be that you are the ones who are mistaken and whose ideas are outdated?
TR: It is deeply saddening that we always get drawn into this debate over who gets to give or take away ‘feminist cards’, but we need to state clearly that not everything which calls itself feminism, is indeed feminism. Likewise, just because an argument comes from a woman, it doesn’t automatically mean that this is a feminist statement. Feminism is a movement which seeks to liberate all women from their oppression. And it is important to emphasise the ‘all’, in that sentence. Feminism is a collective movement, therefore theories which revolve around individual identities do not belong in feminism.
Contrary to popular opinion, it is not true that there are many feminisms: there is only one feminism which is absolutely clear that women cannot continue to be oppressed. Within this political movement, there are strands which problematise different material realities which affect women, because we oftentimes experience different oppressions and discriminations. We have not achieved women’s rights in society. It is precisely because gender continues to operate that we find ourselves so far removed from our liberation. Therefore, we will never embrace as an identity something which destroys us.
RRS: Now, it seems that gender is everywhere these days. Whereas some feminists have argued that gender is the form of oppression females experience on the basis of their sex and should be abolished, others argue that we need to ‘engender’ society and multiply it. Today we find ourselves among Departments of Gender within government ministries, Gender Studies departments within academia, a discourse of ‘gender perspectives’ and so on… How do you conceptualise the future of feminism in the midst of this gender maelstrom?
TR: As feminists, the misrepresentation of the concept of ‘gender’ is blowing up on our own faces. It was a mistake to accept the word ‘gender’ as a substitute for ‘sex’. On too many occasions and as a matter of strategy, we referred to what were ‘feminist politics’ as ‘gender politics’, and ‘gender perspectives’ to what were in fact ‘feminist perspectives.’
Now, society has internalised that sex and gender are synonymous concepts and it will be extremely difficult to clarify this point but it is of the upmost significance that we do, particularly when it comes to the law and legal ramifications. We will get out of this mess only by untangling the deliberate confusions and fighting back against yet another patriarchal reversal.
RRS: Is it a human right to be legally considered a woman?
TR: Being a woman is a biological fact, not a right. However, it is a human right that women should be considered human beings, not second-class beings. It is also a human right that patriarchy ceases to designate women as “the non-men”, and now with the advent of trans activism “the non-trans”, because women are not an otherness or a derivative.
RRS: You keep mentioning biology as an important factor in women’s rights. What would you say to people who say that talking about chromosomes and genitals is “reducing women to their biology”? Shouldn’t we all be more concerned with broader and less… um, physical concepts such as “equality”?
TR: As a human species, women have a vulva and we have XX chromosomes. We also have a uterus, ovaries, we menstruate and we have the potential to gestate and give birth. These are biological realities and it is on that bases that women and girls have been historically oppressed. If we state that women have a vulva, are we reducing women to walking vulvas? Not at all. We can equally state that birds have wings and everybody would understand that this doesn’t mean that birds ‘are’ wings.
What feminism has always criticised is something called ‘biological determinism’ which is the assumption that because we have a uterus and a vulva, then our subordination was natural and biological (therefore legitimate and inalterable), as opposed to cultural (illegitimate and with the potential to change). Feminists argues that these stereotypes placed on the functions of our bodies (which we called ‘gender’) are the product of a system of domination, not nature itself.
RRS: Tell us about the current situation in Spain regarding the topic of ‘gender identity’, please?
TR: Right now, the Spanish left has taken to Congress a proposal for a state-wide Trans Law. This project has been paralysed but, if it were to move forward, it would risk rights and liberties which women currently have and which feminist has fought for strenuously.
This law starts from a conception of gender which is contrary to feminism’s understanding of gender: it argues that gender is a human category, a lived reality and a chosen identity. If there is one thing that feminists have been arguing for throughout millennia is that gender is a set of stereotypical roles which are assigned to us based on our sexed bodies, therefore we reject that these are choices or feelings.
Aside from that, the same law project makes it clear that parents of children who identify themselves with the opposite sex would be prohibited from preventing the medicalisation, both hormonal treatment and surgical interventions, of their underage sons and daughters.
It is because of this, among other reasons, that Spanish feminists consider this law proposal to be inadmissible. We are concerned that the left, which has historically taken up the cause of women’s rights, is ignoring our voices when we say that, while we agree that trans people deserve a life free from violence and discrimination, we are not willing to give up the rights which we have fought for so long to obtain. We are also unwilling to allow our struggle and oppression to be trivialised.
RRS: Is there anything that you would like to say to our audience in the Dominican Republic, regarding the topic of ‘gender identity’, from your perspective as Spanish activists?
TR: Be wary of the Trojan horses hiding within feminism: read, do your research. Do not fall for the traps of neoliberalism which seeks to depoliticise our movement. To the younger women, I would ask them to please research the history of the movement. Theory is necessary if we seek to understand what and why we are fighting, and history also provides us with clues as to how to do it.
It would be important to remind all young women, that the feminist struggle is a fight to liberate all women (50% of the population) from our oppression. Therefore, even though there may be necessary struggles taking place parallel to ours, if our cause is the liberation of all women, then we cannot priorities other struggles over our own. This is particularly significant when the agendas of other struggles do not coincide with the feminist agenda, or in some instances, when they are diagrammatically opposed to our struggle.
Thank you very much to the women of Towanda Rebels.
Our next interview will address the interactions between gender identity policies and sex-based rights with a renowned Spanish barrister and legal scholar.
Raquel Rosario Sánchez is a writer, campaigner and researcher from the Dominican Republic. She specialises in ending male violence against girls and women and is currently pursuing a PhD with the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol.
The original, shorter version of this interview was published by Dominican newspaper El Caribe on October 28th, 2019. You can read it in Spanish here.
Read all the interviews in the El Caribe series on sex and gender identity here
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