Visible Women

“I have been a black feminist activist for 25 years. This is what I’ve learned”

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Marai Larasi
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Marai Larasi is the executive director of Imkaan, a UK-based organisation dedicated to addressing violence against Black and ‘Minority Ethnic’ (BME) women and girls, and the joint chair of the End Violence Against Woman Coalition. Here, she shares what she knows about meaningful feminist activism. 

“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”

- Audre Lorde

On 10 March 2018, women and girls will take to the streets of London for the Million Women Rise March. We have done this around International Women’s Day, every year, for 11 years. You may have never even heard of this event. Yet the women and girls who organise, march, speak, chant, support, steward, sing, dance, and everything else, are mainly grassroots feminist activists, who are demanding an end to violence to against women and girls. 

We are not funded or sponsored. We generally do not make the news. We have no history of celebrity endorsements. We are simply those women and girls, including survivors of violence, who dare to dream that a different world is possible. We are the ones with fire in our bellies. We are the ones who rise, even when the fire feels like nothing more than a mere ember. We are the ones who speak, even though we are sometimes afraid. This is our activism. This is my activism.

The activism that I feel connected to, calls on us to imagine the world beyond that which we know. It demands that we believe in something that is worth striving, struggling or fighting for. Critically it also demands that we do something – that we act. It often requires us to be willing to act even when we are afraid. I believe that anyone who is committed to creating a just and equal world can be an activist. We may not all protest on the streets, or start social media campaigns, but we can all make a difference, even if we struggle with ‘how’. 

In truth, each woman’s activism will be framed by her own journey. My activism is about, as Angela Davis said, “changing the things I cannot accept”. I share the following reflections from that place.

Marai with Emma Watson at the 2018 Golden Globes

Over the years I have learned that listening is an essential part of activism. I have learned to listen, especially to those who are subjected to oppressions that I am protected from. I have learned to sit with the discomfort I feel when, for example, my younger Sistahs, have called me out about my power as an older woman.

I also know how it feels to not be listened to. My mental archives are full of moments where white women have responded to me talking about race and privilege, by going into denial, defensiveness or distress (manifesting itself in tears). Yet if they had simply listened, and worked through their discomfort, we may have moved into a space of solidarity.

The idea of solidarity has also pushed me to think about the importance of accountability to my activist communities. My activism gives me a purpose including my own liberation, but ultimately this is not about whether I have a great life, this is about the kind of world I believe that we can, and should, be creating. This means that I cannot ever be simply ‘forging ahead’ pursuing activist solo stardom. I could not, for example, have been Emma Watson’s guest at the Golden Globes, if we had not agreed to ‘bring it home’. I needed to know that this would make a difference beyond that moment.

This accountability is also rooted in an analysis of structural oppression. I may not always feel powerful, but it is important to know where I hold power, even when I am oppressed in other areas. This is such an important element of movement building. When we only ever see ourselves as powerless, we do not have to change very much about our own behaviour and this impacts our ability to build connections. 

If we are to create meaningful sustainable change we need to be able to connect with others. We need to value the diverse ways that we engage in our activisms using our different spaces for action. For example, we need to hear the power and desperation of women in Yarl’s Wood protesting through hunger strike, while being able to rejoice in the #BlackGirlMagic that Janelle Monáe gave us with Django Jane.

I work for a Black feminist organisation. We have shared herstories, pain, dreams hopes, principles and strategies, but each of us also embodies her own Black feminism. We unapologetically bring this to our work and this creates both richness and ruptures. This is our activism. This is my activism.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Michelle Beatty / Rex Features