I wasn’t born a feminist

As a woman of color, my first interactions with feminist organizations and activists are not my best memories. I wasn’t born a feminist but I became one despite all the odds and the toxic feminism that I came across along the way.

I wasn’t born a feminist.
I wasn’t raised as a feminist.
I wasn’t educated as a feminist.
I wasn’t taught feminism.
I wasn’t given access to feminism.
Feminism was white elitism. And I wasn’t part of it.

Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash
Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

My first interactions with feminist organisations/associations when I was a student or a young professional are not my best memories. On the contrary, the memories of them make me feel deeply sad and humiliated.

My identity was and still is a struggle. Like many of my Black, Indigenous, People Of Colours (BIPOC) brothers and sisters, the struggle was and still is real.

Daughter of the first generation of Algerian migrants: check.
Born and raised in France: check.
Raised in Arabic and Algerian dialect: check.
Being fluent in two languages before entering school: check.
Colonial trauma: check.
Not being considered as a French citizen: check.
Not being considered as an Algerian citizen: check.
Growing up in a ghetto: check.
Being denied a normal childhood: check.
Experiencing structural and abusive racism: check.
Having unsupportive school teachers and professionals: check.
Developing a lifetime survival mode: check.
And believe me, this list is non-exhaustive.

I wasn’t born a feminist.

I got into this fancy white high school, probably thanks to the quota of underprivileged kids they needed. Never checked, I will never know. I have to be honest with you, it was the first time in my life that I was among so many white people in a classroom. And I’m pretty sure that for some of them, I was the first woman of colour they met.

I didn’t fit in. I never felt part of this high school. When you openly identify as a Muslim woman of colour coming from a ghetto, you’re get used to hearing stupid questions: did you see cars burning? Are you part of a gang? Do you have a gun? Have you ever seen drugs? Is it true that the police raided your school and home? Have you ever been arrested? Are you afraid of thugs in your ghetto?

I wasn’t born a feminist.

But, the questions that would always deeply hurt me, and continue to until today, are about my family: Are your father and brothers violent with you? Do they allow you to have a normal life? Did you leave your home to be free?

Movies, TV series, books, music, participated in the creation of the myth that all men of colour are violent. I can give you a list of movies that are so wrong, and so stereotypical of life in a French ghetto. Do not get me wrong, I know about ghetto violence, I know about violence targeting women and girls within my own community, and I will always support brave women who will go against their perpetrators. But it wasn’t about the racist and patriarchal society and my life in the ghetto I was living in. It was the desire to hear stories of violence perpetrated by men of colour and for me to share sensational stories about my family and my past.

Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash
Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

I wasn’t born a feminist.

I wasn’t born a feminist, because I experienced racism before even understanding what it was like to be a girl and a woman in a patriarchal society. These questions still haunt me, and I’m still being questioned about BIPOC men’s violence. I started answering questions when slowly entering feminist organisations. I wanted to fit in and refused to let go of any gossips or fake ideas about my life: the stereotypical woman of colour from a french ghetto with the potential story of family violence who left in a hurry to be free of the horrible men who were controlling her.

So I started answering these questions because I am stubborn and I wouldn’t support the survival of the racist ideas created by years of enslavement and colonisation that wrongly depicted men of colour as savages, rapists, violent men towards women and girls in their lives. That is when the humiliation, the violence, the racism started when talking to the so-called feminist activists I met.

I wasn’t born a feminist.

I didn’t care about their opinions about me. But I always refused to stay silent on their opinions on my life, family and ideas of what it was to be me. They had no problem disrespecting me: I realised that colonial heritage and oppressive ways of thinking were strong and still are strong within our western societies when it comes to talking and interacting with BIPOC. They never respected me nor my emotions or work expertise, the same way they respected white women. But it was and is impossible for them to admit it, even to themselves.

Oh, and I almost forgot, they loved touching my hair and asking me for ”oriental sweets”.

Stop acting like you have a right over my body, my life and my experiences and that I owe you respect, admiration and apologies for pointing out to you your racism and mistakes when you call yourself a “feminist”.

Me, Isma, proudly protesting on the day for International Women’s Day, March 2020. Photo by Young Feminist Europe
Me, Isma, proudly protesting on the day for International Women’s Day, March 2020. Photo by Young Feminist Europe

I wasn’t born a feminist.

I always refused to listen to so-called feminists and allies explaining to me, racism, harmful traditional practices or violence. You cannot explain theoretically something that I always knew in a practical way. I was raised in survival mode and I witnessed and experienced things that were deeply wrong and that are major parts of my commitment to fight violence against women and girls.

I wasn’t born a feminist.

It became natural and normal, and still is, for feminists, to paternalize me (and BIPOC) by explaining to me things that they had the chance to only learn in school books. I have been taken hostage for hour-long conversations with women who told me that they hated my religion, didn’t see colour, could never imagine my struggles, would never support a woman wearing a hijab, would never accept to consider me a feminist if I kept on identifying as Muslim before identifying as a woman while speaking.

Their insults, their rage, their hatefulness and racism, their violence are still hurting me today. It is real trauma.

I wasn’t born a feminist.

Standing up against harmful traditions, violence, discrimination and sexism have always been part of my identity. I was called a feminist as an insult, when I “annoyed” people in my community with my strong positions on human rights and especially women’s rights.

I wasn’t born a feminist.

I have been reading about injustice and human rights at 6, tasting teargas and forced into humiliating body searches by policemen without my consent nor my parents at 11, called racist names (and still happens today), protecting girls and women I knew from violence, learning about our rights, studying and working 3 to 4 times more to get the chance to study, the first in my family to go to university, fighting racism, embracing my feminism and creating my own feminist vision, supported by the most incredible siblings and parents, waking up and fighting for a life that was given to me with obstacles and challenges that will never end.

I wasn’t born a feminist.

I became one with a big angry mouth and brain. Because I have all the rights to be angry and nobody gets to tell me how to feel or react.

Isma Benboulerbah Benboulerbah
isma.benboulerbah@gmail.com
Isma Benboulerbah is a strong and passionate feminist activist and has been working for years on fighting sexual and gender-based violence and harmful traditional practices. She is the Network Director of the European Youth Network on Sexual and Reproductive Rights (YouAct) and the Programmes Officer at End Female Genital Mutilation European Network. After several years of professional experience in France, West Africa and with women from the Arab-Muslim diaspora and FGM-affected communities in Europe, Isma is recognised for her important knowledge on sexual and reproductive rights, gender-based violence and especially harmful traditional practices targeting bodies of girls and women. As a proud Muslim intersectional feminist, Isma has been committed in including and analysing discrimination, racism and islamophobia in the fight for women’s rights and to end all forms of violence.

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