I was recently in the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street for an appointment with a gynaecologist. The doctor requested I get some blood work done, and so I was placed in a chair outside an intake room. After waiting a few minutes, three people emerged from the room, two in medical uniforms and another in religious clothing.
After the one in religious clothing had left the hall area, the two in medical uniforms looked at each other in shock. One of them then says to the other,
“Well I never. . .”
The other cuts across her, “Me neither. Where was she from?”
I giggled internally, and imagined the headline (from The Onion), “Two medical students were in shock today when an Iranian woman visits a maternity hospital after finding out she is pregnant.” There was something interestingly post-modern about the situation as both the woman in religious clothing and myself are Iranians, but admittedly quite different in appearance. My multi-ethnic, US-born background means that difference for me is almost exclusively felt in these instances by medical professionals’ inability to pronounce my family name when calling me from the waiting area (this trip was no exception). I remember often apologizing profusely for the unintentional embarrassment caused by the ‘exoticness’ of my surname's combination of fourteen letters, and how grateful I was that my parents (who couldn’t agree on much but made a valiant effort when it came to assimilation), gave me a ‘normal sounding’ first name.
I might be named after the wife of a brutal Middle East dictator, but at least White America can pronounce it! I do find it, however, oddly ironic that a professional class that regularly uses words like Anhydrohydroxyprogesterone, (26 letters, just saying) have failed throughout the years to even muster an attempt at my name.
Dismantle the master’s house!
Synthetic hormone aside, it was this experience in the National Maternity Hospital that got me thinking about the unique position people of multiple identities hold in the struggle for reproductive rights.
My early political formation happened primarily through the post-9/11 anti-war movement. I was an eager young person, just out of secondary school when I boarded my first international flight to Baghdad in protest of the economic sanctions. It is because of this experience that I became crucially aware of the lethal role imperialism played in the world, and the centrality of racism in the economic machinery of the U.S.
It was an experiential lesson in what Martin Luther King named the triplets of American pathology: racism, materialism (read capitalism), and militarism. The experience, however, also offered me a way to understand how different systems of oppression and injustice can work to reinforce each other in what is fancily called the ‘matrix of domination’. The matrix of domination is a concept that conceives the experience of being discriminated against as one that is different to different kinds of people. These differences include gender, race, class, ableness. . .
Social uprisings, art, collective campaigns, political organizations and national liberation struggles across the globe from the music of the Harlem Renaissance, to the example of the Zapitistas or Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN), to the movemento negro in Brazil, to the Association des Femmes Haitiennes pour l’Organisation du Travail in Haiti, to the Nyabingi movements in East Africa and the Caribbean, to the jamiaht-i nesvan-i vatan-khah women’s associations in Iran, to politicization of traditional practices such as Anlu in Cameroon, all gave voice and feet to a diversity of struggles from which scholars drew wider theories on subject areas such as de-colonization, national liberation, civil and political rights, post-colonialism, and feminism.
These 20th century movements and the scholarship that aimed at defining them (successfully or not!), gave rise to paradigmatic shifts in both – formulating a fundamental challenge to the authority of the nation-state, and providing activists from various struggles the possibility for transnational perspectives. This means in our present day lives that activists, like those demanding the right to abortion in Ireland, can catch courage and ideas from their comrades in Egypt demanding an end to the use of forms of gender based violence against protesters in Tahrir Square.
The idea of ‘bodily sovereignty’ and intersectional identities
The knowledge of these global movements assisted interventions in all kinds of social justice-centred campaigns, including that of the reproductive rights movement. In the North American experience, feminists organizing around suffrage and the framework of ‘choice’ were consistently challenged by womanist, anti-racist and working class movements.
Notions of ‘bodily sovereignty’ and the ability to control reproduction, which formed the core of mainly White, middle-class reproductive rights organizing, had to be re-analyzed by activists in light of intersectional identities.
This made intersectional organizing for reproductive rights an essential element in re-framing reproduction as a matter of justice not choice.
For many in the North American experience, this kind of intersectional engagement was the direct result of a unique history of colonization and slavery, and the resistance of both Native Americans and Africans against these forms of domination. The central fact of slavery was the theft of another’s labour, be it through the forced form of internal reproductive work, or forced forms of external reproductive work in kitchens and cotton fields. Thus, the necessity to have sovereignty over the body has long been an economic justice issue.
The conception of bodily ownership and the need to deconstruct patriarchal, White supremacist notions of ownership over feminized bodies is not just an issue external to communities of colour. Black Panther Party member Kay Lindsey’s 1973 Poem was written specifically as a critique and intervention into a growing conception in the party of ‘revolutionary motherhood’ as an ideal of Black womanhood. Revolutionary motherhood was the idea that black women should reject contraception and the legalization of abortion on the grounds that they were needed to create an ‘army of Black babies’ to fight for the emancipation of the ‘Black race’. Lindsey’s poem belies ‘revolutionary motherhood’ as an anti-imperialist practice, and instead connects the notion to the exploitation of African women’s bodies through the formation of the sex-obsessed ‘Jezebel figure’ brought to the Americas to ‘relieve Black men’ and produce more free labour. Lindsey writes:
“I’m not one of those who believes
That an act of valour, for a woman
Need take place inside her.
My womb is packed in mothballs
And I heard that winter will be mild.
Anyway I have given birth twice
And my body deserves a medal for that
But I never got one.
Mainly because they thought
I was just answering the call of nature.
But now that the revolution needs numbers
Motherhood got a new position
Five steps behind manhood
And I thought sittin’ in the back of the bus
Went out with Martin Luther King.”
In recognizing the historical relevance of ‘bodily sovereignty’ or ownership over one’s own body for women of colour, and sovereignty’s intimate connection to labour, the association of reproduction with ‘choice’ or ‘right’ takes on a more complex meaning.
Savita, Racism and Reproductive Justice
When Savita Halappanavar died late last year, the issue of reproductive rights, an issue that had gone twenty years without legislation, was put forward as the central legislative issue in the country. Social media was alight with arguments, right, left and centre on the debate over legislation. Expressions of grief and anger rang out over rallies, protests, pickets and marches across Ireland and the world, and Savita’s face became the symbol of the abortion rights movement.
Yet, what is troubling about the use of Savita’s image as the symbol for abortion rights in Ireland is how little her experience as a woman of colour has been examined by proponents of reproductive rights, and how this fact impacts the ways in which reproductive rights as a national discourse is defined, strategized and won.
I think nobody would deny that the haunting statement, ‘this is a Catholic country,’ made by the mid- wife in charge of Savita’s care was meant, not only as a means of establishing the role the Catholic church, but most prudently as a way of ‘othering’ Savita. Chicana activist and writer Gloria Anzaldua defined an other’ as ‘the attempt to establish a person as unacceptable based on certain criterion that fails to be met.’
Womanist poet Audre Lorde describes others in her work as ‘anyone that differs from the societal schema of an average, middle class, White male.’ Othering, in my opinion, gives rise to two different but related forms of social narcissism. The first is the establishment of another as ‘not one of us’. Perhaps in Savita’s case this meant not only that the viability of the foetus was put before her own life, but that her own life was not seen or valued as important in the same way as other patients because of her ethnicity.
The second form of social narcissism is a sort of hyper-identification, where another’s difference is the basis for their experiences being appropriated. I think this happens quite often on the left where we read situations with our own tribal/sectarian lens and do not allow the particularities of someone’s experience speak for itself. This happens very often in academic circles too, where people’s lived experiences of oppression become ways for academics to advance their careers and intellectually point-score, whilst their work reinforces dominating paradigms and further alienates their very own subjects.
Either by appropriation or devaluing an individual’s or a groups subjectivity, we formulate a myopic sense of the world that makes it difficult to achieve revolutionary aims. I think we combat othering by understanding the important roles difference plays in our movement – in this case the movement towards reproductive justice. Unity, rather than sameness, recognizes the compelling role cooperation across difference, or solidarity, plays in creating dynamic global justice movements.
Unity through difference
Audre Lorde once said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences,” that lead us towards tolerance instead of change. ‘Difference,’ Lorde teaches, ‘should act like polarities through which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.’
In our reproductive justice struggle, I wonder what it would mean to interrogate Savita’s experience from the perspective of a person of colour attempting to get care in hospital in Ireland? If the centrality of her identity as an Indian was the culminating force that gave rise to a national discussion on race relations, and treatment of those with contingent resident statuses like asylum seekers or refugees. I wonder if we believe Savita’s case would have captured the same level of recognition if she had been working class - a shop keeper, domestic worker or English language student, instead of a dentist. Or, indeed, what difference would it have made if she was White – would she still be alive?
An inclusive, intersectional, anti-racist feminist class war (wooh!) begins by the building of a compelling political vision with our minds and our feet. Free, safe, legal abortions are appropriately an aim worth winning, but the movement for reproductive justice needs to be more diverse than that if it is to include the experiences and specificities of all members of our movement. Bodily sovereignty and reproductive rights is a justice issue for refugees and asylum seekers, for transgendered and gender queer folk, for travellers and the differently abled.
Difference is a crucial strength in solidarity activism. Savita’s death and the hundreds more like her, make it ever more urgent that we see our struggles and need for cooperation across them as an imperative strategy in fostering deeper connections with each other and building tangible forms of solidarity.
Words: Farah Azadi