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What Kind of World Are We Building? The Promise of Feminism

Thursday, May 18, 2017 By Sara Ahmed, Duke University Press | Book Excerpt
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 An activist displays a sign at the #TransUpFront Trans Liberation Protest and March on March 3, 2017. (Photo: Sarah Ji) An activist displays a sign at the #TransUpFront Trans Liberation Protest and March in Chicago, Illinois, March 3, 2017. (Photo: Sarah Ji)

What does it mean to be a modern feminist? In her new book, Sara Ahmed shows the connections between theory and practice, the academy and the everyday, home and work. Bitch Magazine says: "Beautifully written and persuasively argued, Living a Feminist Life, is not just an instant classic, but an essential read for intersectional feminists." Order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!

In this excerpt from Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed looks at the role of hope in feminism, the stereotypical figure of the judgmental feminist, and more.

What do you hear when you hear the word feminism? It is a word that fills me with hope, with energy. It brings to mind loud acts of refusal and rebellion as well as the quiet ways we might have of not holding on to things that diminish us. It brings to mind women who have stood up, spoken back, risked lives, homes, relationships in the struggle for more bearable worlds. It brings to mind books written, tattered and worn, books that gave words to something, a feeling, a sense of an injustice, books that, in giving us words, gave us the strength to go on. Feminism: how we pick each other up. So much history in a word; so much it too has picked up.

I write this book as a way of holding on to the promise of that word, to think what it means to live your life by claiming that word as your own: being a feminist, becoming a feminist, speaking as a feminist. Living a feminist life does not mean adopting a set of ideals or norms of conduct, although it might mean asking ethical questions about how to live better in an unjust and unequal world (in a not- feminist and antifeminist world); how to create relationships with others that are more equal; how to find ways to support those who are not supported or are less supported by social systems; how to keep coming up against histories that have become concrete, histories that have become as solid as walls.

It is worth noticing from the outset that the idea that feminism is about how to live, about a way of thinking how to live, has often been understood as part of feminist history, as dated, associated with the moralizing or even policing stance of what might be called or might have been called, usually dismissively, cultural feminism. ... I am not suggesting here that this version of feminism as moral police, the kind of feminism that might proceed by declaring this or that practice (and thus this or that person) as being unfeminist or not feminist, is simply a fabrication. I have heard that judgment; it has fallen on my own shoulders.

But the figure of the policing feminist is promiscuous for a reason. Feminism can be more easily dismissed when feminism is heard as about dismissal; as being about making people feel bad for their desires and investments. The figure of the feminist policer is exercised because she is useful; hearing feminists as police is a way of not hearing feminism. Many feminist figures are antifeminist tools, although we can always retool these figures for our own purposes. A retooling might take this form: if naming sexism is understood as policing behavior, then we will be feminist police. Note that retooling antifeminist figures does not agree with the judgment (that to question sexism is to police) but rather disagrees with the premise by converting it into a promise (if you think questioning sexism is policing, we are feminist police).

In making feminism a life question, we will be judged as judgmental. In this book I refuse to relegate the question of how to live a feminist life to history. To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable. The question of how to live a feminist life is alive as a question as well as being a life question.

Truthout Progressive Pick


Living a Feminist Life

"Everyone should read this book." -- bell hooks

Click here now to get the book!


If we become feminists because of the inequality and injustice in the world, because of what the world is not, then what kind of world are we building? To build feminist dwellings, we need to dismantle what has already been assembled; we need to ask what it is we are against, what it is we are for, knowing full well that this we is not a foundation but what we are working toward. By working out what we are for, we are working out that we, that hopeful signifier of a feminist collectivity. Where there is hope, there is difficulty. Feminist histories are histories of the difficulty of that we, a history of those who have had to fight to be part of a feminist collective, or even had to fight against a feminist collective in order to take up a feminist cause.

Hope is not at the expense of struggle but animates a struggle; hope gives us a sense that there is a point to working things out, working things through. Hope does not only or always point toward the future, but carries us through when the terrain is difficult, when the path we follow makes it harder to proceed. Hope is behind us when we have to work for something to be possible.

Copyright (2017) by Duke University Press. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Duke University Press.

Sara Ahmed

Sara Ahmed is a feminist writer, scholar and activist. She is the author of Willful Subjects, On Being Included, The Promise of Happiness and Queer Phenomenology, all also published by Duke University Press.

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What Kind of World Are We Building? The Promise of Feminism

Thursday, May 18, 2017 By Sara Ahmed, Duke University Press | Book Excerpt
  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size
  • Print

 An activist displays a sign at the #TransUpFront Trans Liberation Protest and March on March 3, 2017. (Photo: Sarah Ji) An activist displays a sign at the #TransUpFront Trans Liberation Protest and March in Chicago, Illinois, March 3, 2017. (Photo: Sarah Ji)

What does it mean to be a modern feminist? In her new book, Sara Ahmed shows the connections between theory and practice, the academy and the everyday, home and work. Bitch Magazine says: "Beautifully written and persuasively argued, Living a Feminist Life, is not just an instant classic, but an essential read for intersectional feminists." Order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!

In this excerpt from Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed looks at the role of hope in feminism, the stereotypical figure of the judgmental feminist, and more.

What do you hear when you hear the word feminism? It is a word that fills me with hope, with energy. It brings to mind loud acts of refusal and rebellion as well as the quiet ways we might have of not holding on to things that diminish us. It brings to mind women who have stood up, spoken back, risked lives, homes, relationships in the struggle for more bearable worlds. It brings to mind books written, tattered and worn, books that gave words to something, a feeling, a sense of an injustice, books that, in giving us words, gave us the strength to go on. Feminism: how we pick each other up. So much history in a word; so much it too has picked up.

I write this book as a way of holding on to the promise of that word, to think what it means to live your life by claiming that word as your own: being a feminist, becoming a feminist, speaking as a feminist. Living a feminist life does not mean adopting a set of ideals or norms of conduct, although it might mean asking ethical questions about how to live better in an unjust and unequal world (in a not- feminist and antifeminist world); how to create relationships with others that are more equal; how to find ways to support those who are not supported or are less supported by social systems; how to keep coming up against histories that have become concrete, histories that have become as solid as walls.

It is worth noticing from the outset that the idea that feminism is about how to live, about a way of thinking how to live, has often been understood as part of feminist history, as dated, associated with the moralizing or even policing stance of what might be called or might have been called, usually dismissively, cultural feminism. ... I am not suggesting here that this version of feminism as moral police, the kind of feminism that might proceed by declaring this or that practice (and thus this or that person) as being unfeminist or not feminist, is simply a fabrication. I have heard that judgment; it has fallen on my own shoulders.

But the figure of the policing feminist is promiscuous for a reason. Feminism can be more easily dismissed when feminism is heard as about dismissal; as being about making people feel bad for their desires and investments. The figure of the feminist policer is exercised because she is useful; hearing feminists as police is a way of not hearing feminism. Many feminist figures are antifeminist tools, although we can always retool these figures for our own purposes. A retooling might take this form: if naming sexism is understood as policing behavior, then we will be feminist police. Note that retooling antifeminist figures does not agree with the judgment (that to question sexism is to police) but rather disagrees with the premise by converting it into a promise (if you think questioning sexism is policing, we are feminist police).

In making feminism a life question, we will be judged as judgmental. In this book I refuse to relegate the question of how to live a feminist life to history. To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable. The question of how to live a feminist life is alive as a question as well as being a life question.

Truthout Progressive Pick


Living a Feminist Life

"Everyone should read this book." -- bell hooks

Click here now to get the book!


If we become feminists because of the inequality and injustice in the world, because of what the world is not, then what kind of world are we building? To build feminist dwellings, we need to dismantle what has already been assembled; we need to ask what it is we are against, what it is we are for, knowing full well that this we is not a foundation but what we are working toward. By working out what we are for, we are working out that we, that hopeful signifier of a feminist collectivity. Where there is hope, there is difficulty. Feminist histories are histories of the difficulty of that we, a history of those who have had to fight to be part of a feminist collective, or even had to fight against a feminist collective in order to take up a feminist cause.

Hope is not at the expense of struggle but animates a struggle; hope gives us a sense that there is a point to working things out, working things through. Hope does not only or always point toward the future, but carries us through when the terrain is difficult, when the path we follow makes it harder to proceed. Hope is behind us when we have to work for something to be possible.

Copyright (2017) by Duke University Press. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Duke University Press.

Sara Ahmed

Sara Ahmed is a feminist writer, scholar and activist. She is the author of Willful Subjects, On Being Included, The Promise of Happiness and Queer Phenomenology, all also published by Duke University Press.