#Blacksexworkerslivesmatter: White-Washed ‘Anti-Slavery’ and the Appropriation of Black Suffering

by Robyn Maynard
Originally published at The Feminist Wire, republished here with permission.

Art by Robyn Maynard and Jessica MacCormack

Claiming to be a modern-day anti-slavery ambassador is a highly profitable cause, one that is increasingly popular in Hollywood circles. Most recently, hundreds of celebrities endorsed an open letter to derail Amnesty International’s draft policy to decriminalize consensual adult prostitution. The letter was written by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (CATW), a U.S-based anti-prostitution lobby group who frequently lobbies for the criminalization of the sex industry while using the term interchangeably with “contemporary slavery.” Indeed it has developed into, quite literally, a ten-million dollar industry; it has become common-place to see organizations seeking large-scale donations for some take on a “movement to re-Abolish slavery.” Yet if fighting the supposed legacy of slavery is this popular of a social cause, how is it that crowd-funding remains one of the only means of fundraising by families of Black persons killed by the police? In what some are calling the Age of Ferguson, an era where police killings of Black men, women, and children are institutionalized and enshrined in law in the same way that slavery once was, the question must be asked: how legitimate can a ‘new’ anti-slavery movement be when the legacy of the transatlantic slave-trade is a living, breathing horror for anyone living with Black skin in the Americas? And what does this say about the value placed on Black lives that fighting ‘slavery’ is only popular when it is whitewashed of any Black-led struggles for justice?

For anti-prostitution campaigns pushing for the criminalization of the sex industry, ‘slavery’ has been decontextualized from Black struggle and repurposed to describe the multiplicity of workplaces where sexual services are exchanged consensually and for remuneration, such as strip clubs, brothels and massage parlours and on the street. As a black woman with experience in the sex industry and as a long-time outreach worker with both street-based and indoor sex workers in Montreal, this rhetoric has always troubled me. Mobilizing slavery in this way has always seemed a deeply disrespectful appropriation of Black suffering, disrespectful both to our deceased ancestors and to our still-endangered lives as Black folks.

But by hijacking the terminology of slavery, even widely referring to themselves as ‘abolitionists’, anti-sex work campaigners have not only (successfully) campaigned for funding and legal reform; but they do so without any tangible connections to historical or current Black political movements against state violence. Indeed in pushing for criminalization, they are often undermining those most harmed by the legacy of slavery. As Blacks persons across the Americas are literally fighting for our lives, it is urgent to examine the actions and goals of any mostly white and conservative movement who deign to be the rightful inheritors of an ‘anti-slavery’ mission which deigns to abolish prostitution but both ignores and indirectly facilitates brutalities waged against Black communities.

What is this ‘New Anti-Slavery’ Movement Devoid of Black Solidarity?

It is not only CATW that appropriates the anti-slavery narrative. Politicians, highly influential and well-funded international NGO’s, women’s groups, high-profile celebrities and Evangelical and Catholic organizations across Canada and the United States regularly and repeatedly invoke Black suffering under chattel slavery in a push to criminalize the sex industry. Canadian Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament Joy Smith frequently invokes ‘modern slavery‘ to pass legislation criminalizing sex work in Canada. This is part of a broader anti-prostitution movement that self-identifies as ‘abolitionist’, nominally assuming a direct lineage with those who fought and opposed chattel slavery. Vancouver women’s organization Vancouver Rape Relief explicitly link their own efforts to criminalize all forms of prostitution to the anti-slavery movements in 18th century West Indies, the United States and Canada; and go on to place themselves as modern anti-slavery ambassadors, claiming their role in “a new international abolitionist movement [which] has recently emerged.” Joy Smith directly parallels her work to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Writer and sex worker Maggie McNeil has pointed out in the Washington Post, the use of the historically and emotionally loaded term ‘slavery’ is deliberate and not accidental: activist group Demand Abolition openly state that they strategically use the word slavery as a stand in for prostitution in order to garner popular support.

Slavery Without the Slaves?

Anti-prostitution and right wing government agencies frequently repeat the (rarely cited) statistic that sexual slavery is the ‘third largest world economy’, yet these claims have repeatedly been demonstrated to be baseless. The oft-repeated statistic that the average of entry into the sex trade is 12-14 in North America have been categorically debunked since they are based on studies which excluded adults,[1] to the point of being excluded as evidence in the Ontario Superior Court by Justice Susan Himel. Even those horrific instances of conditions that could arguably be called ‘sex slavery’ are not definitive of the entire sex industry; despite anti-prostitution advocates’ frequent but inaccurate claims to the contrary. In Canada the only large-scale national peer-reviewed study investigating the topic found that most women working in the sex trade do not consider themselves victims, let alone could they be considered slaves by any legal categorization. Working conditions in the sex industry, like in many unregulated or criminalized industries, can be far from ideal, and indeed can be coercive and even violent in many instances. Yet ‘slavery’ is an empirically inaccurate description of the sex industry as a whole; only made possible by misrepresenting facts and conflating sex work and sex trafficking statistics to drum up support to criminalize prostitution.

Using ‘Abolition’ to Promote Human Rights Abuses

Though they invoke slavery and abolition, neither the money raised nor the visibility of prohibitionist movements goes towards the Black-led movements against continued state violence. In borrowing this narrative, these ‘abolitionists’, who, as I have argued elsewhere are more rightly termed prohibitionists, exploit Black suffering to provide emotional weight to their own cause.

Not only is Black suffering appropriated and evacuated from so-called ‘new abolition’, but this movement is being used to champion a pro-criminalization movement which has been documented to harm those it purports to support. After much lobbying, Canadian prohibitionists championed a recently passed federal legislation intended to eradicate the sex industry in the name of ‘protecting vulnerable peoples’, (officially the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act). Sex workers, racial justice and human rights advocates across the country fiercely opposed this legislation, however, because it continued to criminalize sex workers and their necessary safety practices both directly and indirectly. Hailed as an ‘abolitionist victory’, the law continues to criminalize street-based sex workers, even though a nearly-identical law was recently struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada as unconstitutional because it put street-based sex workers lives in danger[2] and left sex workers vulnerable to police abuse. Incidentally, street-based sex workers are disproportionately Indigenous, Black, and trans women. One recent application of this new ‘rescue’ law saw Quebec-based ‘abolitionist’ group the Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuel (CLES) call (successfully) on the police to increase surveillance and enforcement of sex work locations during Montreal’s June 2015 Grand Prix; another saw 11 migrant sex workers deported in an Ottawa-based sting in May of this year. In the wake of both empirical evidence and consultations with sex workers demonstrating the harms caused by criminalization, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization have come out in favor of decriminalization of the consensual exchange of sexual services for money, in order to better support sex workers’ multifaceted struggle against human and labour rights abuses, including violence at the hands of law enforcement, and vulnerability to contracting HIV/-AIDS.[3] For the same reasons, hundreds of sex worker organizations around the world, notably in post-colonial nations across the continent of Africa and the Caribbean islands, continually advocate for decriminalization. Criminalization, regardless of its purportedly benevolent intentions, places sex workers in harm’s way, and invoking black slaves who lived and died fighting for their humanity to this purpose is an abuse of history.

Robbed of Our Narratives: Black Slavery and Abolition Are Not Metaphors

Yet it is simply false to parallel the entire sex industry to an economic, social and political system based on the full subjugation of one race to another, wherein Blacks in the United States and Canada were systematically chained, raped, beaten, branded, used, and disposed of by their white slave owners under the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation economies, categorically deemed subhuman for hundreds of years. For too long, Black communities have been robbed of our bodies, languages, and innovations, and here we are also robbed of our own historical narrative.

How is it that a quintessentially pro-criminalization movement is called ‘new abolition’ when it works directly against efforts taken to combat anti-Black policing and Black incarceration? Abolition is an important part the Black tradition; Black ex and runaway slaves played a crucial role in the formal abolition of the institution of slavery in the Americas, and were without question the original abolitionists, alongside white supporters. The significance of those Black slaves that escaped and fought for abolition cannot and must not be abstracted into mere metaphor, for the purpose of evoking strong emotions against prostitution, or any other means of working, trading, surviving or thriving.

Abolition belongs not only to Black history but also to contemporary Black-led struggles against incarceration and policing. The words of formerly incarcerated ex-Black Panther Angela Y. Davis on her involvement with anti-prison activism demonstrate this lineage clearly:

I choose the word `abolitionist’ deliberately. The 13th Amendment, when it abolished slavery, did so except for convicts. Through the prison system, the vestiges of slavery have persisted. It thus makes sense to use a word that has this historical resonance. (Davis, (1996: 26).

Though it goes ignored by the Hollywood, white-feminist, and Evangelical-church-based version of abolitionism, there exists a vibrant contemporary Black, indigenous, and women of colour-led abolitionist movement against the prison-industrial complex; pushing instead for a transformative justice which does not rely on law enforcement; INCITE!,TGI Justice, and #BlackLivesMatter are only a few. In their push for criminalization, anti-prostitution advocates under the borrowed term of ‘abolitionists’ are taking the space that rightfully belongs to grassroots Black-led/allied abolitionist movements against the prison industrial complex and the ongoing lived effects of slavery. And they do so while promoting practices that harm Black communities and Black organizing efforts against law enforcement.

Criminalization is No Friend to Black Women: #Sayhername #Blacksexworkerslivesmatter

It is not arbitrary that many Black feminist writers and racial justice activists advocate and organize to create anti-violence measuresbeyond the state, and are less likely than our white feminist counterparts to push for more policing to ‘protect’ us. The most significant violence Black communities face is still at the hands of the state. Black (and Indigenous) communities always bear the brunt of criminalization, be it via laws against sex, drugs, or even inhabiting public space. Indeed the Black inmate population at federal institutions in Canada has grown by nearly 90 per cent since 2003, the result of unapologetic police profiling, hyper-surveillance, and harassment, experienced by the Black population in every Canadian and American city. Recently, #BlackLivesMatter has made some gains in highlighting the erasure and silence of the state’s silent War on Black Women. Profiling, and indeed police murder of Black women is less mediatized, but it is no less a reality; as black feminists and others continue to point out, notably here and here. Still, our lives (and our deaths) are accorded little value in the Americas.

Where do the pro-law enforcement strategies promoted by these ‘anti-slavery advocates’ leave Black sex workers, and Black cis and trans women more generally? In the context of unchecked anti-Black racism, more police on the streets and surveillance of indoor sex work locations inevitably means more abuse of Black women and Black sex working women at the hands of the police, particularly trans women. The Ontario Human Rights Commission found that many Canadian Black women were profiled because “they were assumed to be prostitutes [by police] because they were in a car with White men who was assumed to be a customer.”[4] Black women who sell or trade sex are specifically targeted by law enforcement; the Red Umbrella Project based in New York recently documented that Black defendants in Brooklyn made up 94 percent of charges on the offense of “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” Where there is profiling, already a form of harm, there is abuse and violence, and sex workers have been documented to experience high rates of sexual assault at the hands of the police.[5] The violence of the criminal justice system is most notably silenced when it involves Black transgendered sex workers; as tragically exemplified by the recent death of Mya Hall, a black transgender sex worker killed by police, and near media silence. Black sex workers too often live in fear of losing their children, fear losing of their only source of income with which they support their families, and sometimes fear losing their lives.

#Realabolitionnow – Our Abolition Movements Are Not Over

The abolition of ‘formal’ slavery was accomplished, but the abolition of its horrific legacy is far from over, and so abolition cannot rightly be borrowed to enhance the popularity of the political causes of celebrities and highly-funded NGO’s. Though ‘abolition’ has been appropriated, I do not intend to easily surrender the legacy of Black slavery and abolition to those who would abuse it. Co-opting the horrors of Black slavery in order to push for increased policing of women’s (often Black and cis and trans women’s) workspaces and bodies is dangerously misinformed: the harms wreaked on Black women’s bodies by hundreds of years of racist policing and imprisonment stand for themselves. The legacy of the abolition of slavery belongs to those who are still living (and dying) in its wake; there is no place for an ‘abolitionism’ that organizes for more, and not less, law enforcement, in a context in which hundreds of thousands of Black lives have been lost to law enforcement or vigilantes in the United States and Canada in recent decades.

It is only in allying ourselves to end the state’s war on Black women, including trans Black women and Black sex working women, and for an end to Black suffering, can we truly deign to call ourselves abolitionists. To fight the modern legacy of slavery, we must be part of fighting, and not contributing to Black suffering.

[1] For more information on Canadian prohibitionist’ misuse of statistics including ‘age-of-entry’ see John Lowman’s Brief to the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.

[2] Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101.

[3] World Health Organization: “Violence against sex workers and HIV prevention” 2005; UN AIDS, UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work, 2009.

[4] Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, December 1995.

[5] A 2007 report for the United Nations brings forth a 2002 Chicago-based study that found that 30% of exotic dancers and 24% of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist.   Approximately 20% of other acts of sexual violence were also committed by the police. This study was entitled In the shadows of the war on terror: Persistent police brutality and abuse of people of color in the United States A report prepared for the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, published in December 2007 and written by Ritchie and Mogul, DePaul College of Law Civil Rights Clinic, 28.

IMG_6299-2Robyn Maynard is a Black feminist writer, activist, and most recently, a brand-new mama. She is a full-time outreach worker Stella, a by-and-for sex workers service and advocacy organization in Montreal. She is a frequent media commentator on the harms caused by the criminalization of sex work and the harms of systemic racism, and her voice has been featured on CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, the Nation, Maisonneuve Magazine; she also recently testified before Canada’s Parliamentary Justice Committee on the new prostitution laws. For nearly 10 years she has been part of grassroots efforts against police racism and brutality in Montreal and she is a co-founder of Justice for Victims of Police Killings, a group of family and supporters of people killed by the police across Canada.

Bad Home Training: An Open Letter to Melissa Flournoy of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast

Originally posted on Women's Health And Justice Initiative:

A little back story:

Last night, August 13th, there was a screening of We Always Resist: Trust Black Women. The documentary touches on the ways that the pro choice framework abandons black women. It talks about solution oriented community activism and the ways that black women are left in the lurch when the conversation about reproductive rights focuses only on the single issue of abortion.  After the film, local activists Deon Haywood of Women With A Vision and Paris Hatcher of SPARK and Race Forward got together to do a panel discussion about their work and the film.

Melissa Flournoy, Louisiana Director of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, was the first person to speak. She proceeded to rudely derail the entire conversation. 

This is my response as a member of the Women’s Health and Justice Initiative, a queer black femme woman, a New Orleans native, and a daughter of a mother who…

View original 1,959 more words

National Action to Free Marissa Alexander: Urge the State to Drop the Case!


From Free Marissa Now:

National Action: Urge the State to Drop the Case! 

Have you heard the good news out of Florida? The Appeals Court threw out the guilty verdict in the Marissa Alexander case, citing a “fundamental error” in the jury instructions which unjustly required Marissa to prove her innocence, depriving her of a fair trial.

In mid-October, State Prosecutor Angela Corey will decide whether to drop the case or set a new trial date. We say drop the case! 

October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month – a perfect time to draw attention to how Marissa’s experience of domestic violence and incarceration exemplifies the widespread racial and gender bias in our criminal justice system.

We are asking you to send letters and/or call Angela Corey and encourage her to seek Justice, not a Conviction! Please send copies of your message to Attorney General Pam Bondi and Governor Rick Scott so that they know the strength of public opinion on this issue.

The sample letter below may help you get started.

— Free Marissa Now


SAMPLE LETTER (download as pdf!):

Name __________________________



Email __________________________

Dear Ms. Corey:

You have an opportunity to allow an innocent person to go free without further cost to the state of Florida and without further trauma to this woman and her family. I encourage you to drop the charges against Marissa Alexander, rather than pursuing a new trial which, if justice is served, will result in a not-guilty verdict.

Marissa Alexander was a victim of domestic violence who acted in self-defense by taking the only action she saw possible at that moment – an action that injured no one. Her case shines a light on how black women in domestic violence situations are often doubly victimized when they seek justice. Ms. Alexander has experienced at least two traumatic events: the first is being repeatedly abused by her husband, the second is being prosecuted and sentenced to prison for defending herself from that abuse.

Ms. Alexander’s experience bears out the fact that women of color are arrested more often than white women when police arrive on the scene of a domestic violence incident.

For this reason, fewer than 17% of black women call the police for fear they will be further victimized by the police or the courts. By allowing Marissa Alexander to be sentenced to 20 years for self-defense, you have given the message to women everywhere that if they defend their lives, they will be also targeted by police and prosecutors.

There is a widespread stereotype that survivors who fight for their lives, particularly if they are black women, are “too aggressive” and not genuine victims. This stereotype was carried out to such an extent in Marissa Alexander’s case that the whole premise of innocent until proven guilty was reversed, as the Appeals Court found.

Please do the right thing by stopping any further prosecution of this innocent mother and daughter. Drop the case, dismiss all charges, and free Marissa Alexander!




Send your letter to the following addresses:
(Hard copies make more of an impact!)

Angela Corey, State Attorney
Courthouse Annex
220 East Bay Street
Jacksonville, FL 32202
Phone: 904-630-2400
Fax: 904-630-2938

Office of Attorney General Pam Bondi
State of Florida
The Capitol PL-01
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1050
Phone: 850-414-3300 or 850-414-3990
Fax: 850-410-1630

Office of Governor Rick Scott
State of Florida
The Capitol
400 S. Monroe St.
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0001
Phone: 850-717-9337 or 850-488-7146


Read INCITE!’s endorsement of the call to Free Marissa Alexander.

Getting Free Down By The Combahee Riverside: A Black Feminist Pilgrimage

Getting Free Down By The Combahee Riverside: A Black Feminist Pilgrimage
by Amber Williams


Fellow travelers at the Combahee River Black Feminist Pilgrimage

On June 2nd 1863 Harriet Tubman positioned herself as the first woman to serve as a military operative for the United States Union Army to coordinate and execute the Combahee River Raid during the Civil War.  She  arrived in South Carolina with the intention of “tearing shit up”(Alexis Gumbs) burning the residences and property of seven to eight plantations and freeing approximately 800 (and potentially more) enslaved people in one night—this number more than quadrupling the amount of people she freed at this point in her career.

Fast-forwarding to May 31, 2013, I participated in the Combahee River Black Feminist Pilgrimage, a component of Mobile Homecoming and Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind gathering to honor Harriet Tubman and the 150th year anniversary of the Combahee River Raid. I assumed my participation in this pilgrimage  I would a: help me realize a greater sense of purpose in anti-oppression work and b: allow me to engage in scholarly dialogue about black feminist paradigms and how they manifest in the lives of Black feminist queer women, trans and gender nonconforming people. Although these presumptions were elements of my experience, they were most certainly reductive components of an entire sum—and the total sum went beyond my presumption I could ever imagine as “transcendent”.

Honestly, my willingness to be open to transformation was by no means a part of my experience before arriving. Even after being overwhelmed by a wave of excitement and joy upon receipt of the knowledge that I could in fact attend this pilgrimage, life took a few dramatic twists and turns that forced me to reconcile what it means to exist as a black queer woman torn in utter disarray about my responsibility to my family; unsettled about intimate relationships; and hurting from the manifestations of capitalism playing tricks on my wallet, all while uncovering repressed trauma that  questioned my sense of place and belonging at home . Long story short, I had an inescapable ‘bad attitude’ with very little refuge to uncover the roots. Therefore I questioned the value of my bad attitude at a pilgrimage that may require a more upbeat, energetic persona I felt unable to provide. I wondered how I could be fully present while balancing my reality as a black queer woman disrupted by so many forces in my emotional turmoil and depletion of energy.

With the wisdom, kindness, and patience of family, friends, and mentors, I packed my worries alongside my journal and decided to immerse myself into the unknown beauty of this pilgrimage with all my warranted and unwarranted anxieties. I hoped to find answers to pressing questions that could help me shift my environment in a more self-determined direction. With all of my material and emotional baggage, I finally arrived at the first meeting point of the pilgrimage, still clamoring for some control by micromanaging of transportation and being hyper-concerned about tardiness, only to finally fall into a place surrounded by the beautiful faces of the black women who immediately put my worries at ease. I was instantly comforted up by their energy in a way that mellowed my hovering stress. In that calming moment I knew that I had been called by the universe and my ancestors to be there; caravanning between North and South Carolina, unveiled in the rawness of my essence; eventually, sailing along the Harriet Tubman Freeway while exchanging dried mango, lavender lemonade, kale salad, and “queer (vegan and gluten free) chicken” in the epic novelty of unquestioned closeness and acceptance of everyone. We danced and sang in our seats, reflected on the words of our pilgrimage podcast and dialogued about love, relationships, gender expression, healing, spirituality, nourishment, and autonomy as we journeyed to the Penn Center the location of the duration of the pilgrimage

Upon our arrival, that night, we set our intentions, shared each of our purpose for coming, expressed what we needed from each other for the remainder of our time, and listened to a general overview of why we were gathering. Immediately, what I presumed to be strictly a dialogue space to honor the Combahee River Collective Statement and the fierce legacy of its creators was challenged by a deep understanding of the relevance of the Combahee River and a re-introduction to Harriet Tubman.

Alexis Gumbs hoped this would be a time to evaluate what we are getting free of and intended to leave behind at the river…keeping in mind the infamous imagery of Harriet Tubman’s shot gun symbolizing the promise and commitment of follow through from freeing ourselves from the pits of colonization and capitalist forces manifested from chattel slavery.

I felt called to evaluate the complexity of being mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectuality imprisoned by capitalism, sexism, and racism (just to name a few) while simultaneously recognizing that our very existence is a manifestation of Harriet Tubman’s dream of the abolishment of chattel slavery. I felt accountable to honoring the innumerous sacrifices made through varying forms of resistance by enslaved and freed black folk in order to make it possible for me to be able to say and proclaim “I am” and “I choose”. Resting in this complexity of freedom made it possible for me to celebrate the triumphs of Harriet Tubman and other Black women freedom fighters, both past and present. I remembered my ‘bad attitude’ and all of the other repressed traumas and challenges in my world that in a twisted convoluted way lead me to the River. My tired and stressed body and spirit needed to be in a state of depletion in order for me to unleash any sense of reservation that would stop me from harboring unexamined internalized oppression. I thought about Harriet’s journey to South Carolina and wondered how angry, frustrated, and fed up she must have been in order to coordinate a violent revolt against chattel slavery freeing hundreds of people. Thus, my participation in this pilgrimage surrounded by my unraveling context felt much bigger than a mere coincidence.  I chanted, journeyed, sang, and danced in strength and love in full recognition that “black women are inherently valuable” (Combahee River Collective Statement).

Together in celebration of black magic, black queerness, black love, and black resistance, we found ways to extract the deepest internalizations of our multiple and intersecting oppressions, mark their transient patterns between our distanced experiences, and dismantle them through the embodied realization thatthe only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us” (Combahee River Collective Statement). We “laid down our varying and interwoven burdens” premised on a collective agreement that “our ancestors worked tirelessly to prove themselves so that we did not have to” (Combahee Pilgrimage Member) and that honoring them meant abolishing the shackles of our contexts as an act of self-love. With my heart, body, and spirit stretched wide open, I felt held, loved, beautiful, and awakened by the presence of my newfound community of women who were so willing to “know” me, to see me, and to be seen in their vulnerabilities. As we interlocked our stories like oak trees strengthened by the outward grasps of sprawling fringed and loosened roots  in love and solidarity, I reconnected to an un-institutionalized form of black spirituality by singing black hymnals and dancing proudly to freedom fighter songs (sometimes) in tears; and in those precious moments I could relinquish any fear of compromising my strength (a consequence and tool in navigating the complexities of my intersecting identities) through an expression of vulnerability and weakness. I didn’t have to navigate the world wandering in silent despair; I could instead stay up late into the night gazing at clear blue skies filled with bright stars for endless hours while being fed and filled with dialogue, understanding, and care. And none of the questions I came seeking answers for were answered in my oasis. Yet I felt ready and rejuvenated to return to Ann Arbor with an awakened spirit packed with even more unanswered questions. Four days at a Black Feminist Pilgrimage and hours spent in meditation at the Combahee River served as a reminder that my ‘freedom’ from deep internalizations of colonization, (in many ways) requires an aggressive unshackling of self-hate, doubt, and degradation in the company and occupation of a black queer feminist collective of beautiful people ready and willing to hold me, as I hold them, in loud, bolstering resistance.

To end this reflection: Thank you to my Incite! Ann Arbor family and Incite! Nationals for informing me of this completely transformative experience and a very, very special shout out to Karla Meija, Kiri Sailiata, Isabel Milan, Alexis Gumbs, and Mandisa Moore for your creative organizing that made it possible for me to participate in this pilgrimage. Words cannot express my gratitude, love and appreciation for your support. I also want to thank Dr. Sheri Randolph, African and African American History Professor at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor—an amazing scholar who catalyzed my intellectual juices by introducing me to black feminist scholarship. Dr. Randolph, you developed a landscape in which I was able to imagine and actualize myself in a way that no academic course ever could. I am eternally grateful.

In Love and Solidarity


Amber Williams is a program coordinator at the University of Michigan in the Division of Student Affairs, and advocate of educational equity engaged in tackling the school to prison pipeline, college access for first generation youth in urban/rural Michigan, and supporting queer youth of color empowerment projects by leveraging university resources. She has also been a member Incite! Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti chapter for five years as a facilitator and organizer of social justice education through a black feminist praxis and ideology. 


A message from the Bay NJ4 Committee:

Dear friends and comrades,

Patreese Johnson of the New Jersey 4 is coming home in August after 7 years of incarceration by the State of New York. She will be released on parole with a felony charge on her record.

For those who may not remember the details of this case, On August 18, 2006, seven young African American lesbians traveled to New York City from their homes in Newark for a regular night out. When walking down the street, a man sexually propositioned one of the women. After refusing to take no for an answer, he assaulted them. The women tried to defend themselves, and a fight broke out. The women were charged with Gang Assault in the 2nd degree, a Class C Felony with a mandatory minimum of 3.5 years. Patreese Johnson was additionally charged with 1st Degree Assault. Three of the women accepted plea offers. On June 14th, 2007 Venice Brown (19), Terrain Dandridge (20), Patreese Johnson (20), and Renata Hill (24) received sentences ranging from 3 1⁄2 to 11 years in prison.

We in the Bay NJ4 Solidarity Committee need your help in spreading the word about her release and promoting various ways of helping throw down for her reentry and legal defense needs, as a civil suit is also still pending. Please repost links and information to your blogs, networks, listserves, tumblrs, etc.

Please do what you can to let folks know about a go fund me campaign online where everyone is encouraged to contribute. The link is

Also, for those in the San Francisco Bay Area, the NJ4 solidarity committee is having a happy hour fundraiser at El Rio on June 14th from 4-6. The committee would love to reconnect with folks and hear about your work as well.

With Appreciation,
The NJ4 Solidarity Committee: Cynthia, Deeg, Eric, Io, Ralowe, Tory, Xan

More about the New Jersey 4 (also known as the New Jersey 7):

The Feminist Wire Forum on Muslim Feminisms

The hunger and thirst we endure from sunrise to sunset during this holy month is not only for food and water – the food and water too many of our sisters and brothers all over the globe lack. It is also a hunger and thirst for knowledge, for piety, for humility, for social justice, and for equality. At its most basic, Ramadan is about love. It is a period of reflection and engagement, a path for developing what feminist activist Cathy Cohen calls “radical empathy.”

Dana Olwan and Sophia Azeb, Muslim Feminisms Forum: An Introduction

This month, The Feminist Wire hosted a forum on Muslim feminisms featuring a diverse collection of writing reflecting on critical topics such as colonial violence, imperial feminism, human rights, the politics of the hijab, gender violence, and liberatory practices.  Below we’ve shared the list of articles from the forum and the concluding remarks from the editors, Dana Olwan and Sophia Azeb.  Reprinted with permission.

The Feminist Wire Forum on Muslim Feminisms:

Muslim Feminisms Forum: An Introduction
by Dana Olwan and Sophia Azeb

Defining Muslim Feminist Politics Through Indigenous Solidarity Activism
by Shaista Patel

Seeing Muslim Women With Western Eyes
by Josh Ceretti

Striving for Muslim Women’s Human Rights
by Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons

The Hijab and the Pitch
by Laurent Dubois

Salam in the City
by Sinat Giwa

In honour of the leadership of US-born African-American/African-Caribbean/African-Latin@ Muslim women in responding to HIV/AIDS
by Prof Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé

Pot Roast and Imperial Justifications
by Amal Rana

Reframing the Discussion: Concluding Thoughts on the Forum on Muslim Feminisms
by Dana Olwan and Sophia Azeb


Reframing the Discussion: Concluding Thoughts on the Forum on Muslim Feminisms
by Dana Olwan and Sophia Azeb

For too long, Muslim feminists have endured the question of whether Islam and feminism can coexist. This seemingly innocent question, asked on the part of concerned feminists and others, presumes (and sometimes even enshrines) the claim of Islam’s incongruity with feminism. The underlying assumptions that frame this tired debate are often articulated in this way: Can religious practice, which often hinges on patriarchal authority and interpretation, be amenable to feminist thought, action, and praxis? Can feminist ideals be sought and attained within a religious (thus patriarchal), as opposed to a secular (and therefore egalitarian), framework? And, more specifically, can Islam, as a religious identity, doctrine, and practice, work in tandem with the principles and ideals of democratic feminism?

Overwhelmingly, the responses from Muslim feminists have highlighted Islam’s inherent egalitarian nature and the Quran’s gender progressive teachings and edicts.[1] They have argued that Muslim teachings enshrine a politics and practice of gender equity. They shore up important examples of the gains historically made by Muslim women all over the world. Muslim feminists, a diverse group that includes scholars, activists, and practicing men and women, eschew and challenge patriarchal readings and interpretations of both the Quran and the hadith (that is, the body of works that reference and document the prophet’s sayings, actions, and doings) in order to support their belief in the mutually reinforcing relationship between feminism and Islam.

Such work, while profound, often cedes too much ground to the charged and often predetermined frames of reference on which the political question of whether Islam and feminism can coexist often hinge. In other words, while Muslim feminists have confronted these questions in real, determined, and sustainable ways, their confrontations leave unturned the terms that shape this debate in the first place. Why, for example, do Muslims feel compelled to answer the question of whether Islam is compatible with feminism by repeatedly defining and defending Islam and showcasing its gender equal principles to non-Muslims? Why don’t we alter the frames of the question, asking, instead, what feminism actually means and whether feminism, as a both a political movement and analytical tool, is amenable to Islam and religious identity and practice? How does our constant re-engagement with this question of the ostensibly contradictory, uneasy, or nonexistent relationship of Islam and feminism obscure predetermined relationships of power and reinforce hegemonic discourses?

As Muslim women, anti-racist feminists, teachers, and scholars from two different backgrounds and positionalities, we have found ourselves reflecting on these questions and repeatedly grappling with the troubling narratives that shape discourses about Muslim women and Islam in Western and non-Western contexts. So, rather than responding to the question of Islam’s compatibility with feminism from a defensive standpoint, we have utilized this forum to refocus our energies on understanding our varied but interconnected religious and political experiences and struggles and to think through both our alliances and complicities. In short, we want to reflect on how our critiques can be imagined and mobilized in the service of revolutionary causes in a period of intense social, political, and economic local and global change.

For her part, Sophia’s faith has served as her political, spiritual, and social anchor. Both her scholarly and activist work engage her own particular experience as an Afro-Arab anarcha-feminist Muslimah missing the whimsy and traditions of her neighbourhood in Alexandria, Egypt, and a homestead in Beir Nabala, Palestine — a home(land) that she has never set foot upon. Sophia’s Muslim politics are shaped by a Third Worldist devotion to disrupting the imperialist binary of Arab vs. African that many of our sisters and brothers in Islam, the West, and SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa) replicate. But, as Sinat Giwa articulated in a loving narrative of finding the peace in “Salam’ing to strangers” (only a little pun intended), Sophia’s Islam remains her own. It is a self-aware, anti-racist, and feminist Islam devoted to building solidarity by owning and respecting the complexities of her intersectional identities and those of her peers and allies.

As a Palestinian feminist scholar based in the settler colonial state of Canada (who will soon be moving to the United States), Dana has often struggled to find her own faith amidst pressures to conceal religious practice, to sever ties with religious communities, and disavow violent acts perpetrated in Islam’s name. Dana’s faith is driven by her desire to understand Muslim women’s acts of resistance against interpersonal and state-sanctioned acts of violence. Like Shaista Patel, Dana seeks to enact “feminist theories and practices that recognize the critical and urgent need of intervening in the interlocking workings of state power and gender violences, and that engage with histories of the land we are on.”

Both of our Muslim feminist politics are informed by our commitment to confronting patriarchal acts of violence committed by the state andinstitutionalized forms of patriarchy and imperialism perpetrated by individuals, both Muslim and non-Muslim, without fueling Islamophobia, settler nationalism, or racism. Our Muslim feminist politics are about forming connections between Muslim and non-Muslim justice-seeking men, women, and children and supporting their struggles against colonial and gendered oppressions and sexual violence. Like Josh Cerretti, our feminist politics necessitate that we think about Islam in a way that does not obfuscate the longer histories of Muslim women’s resistance. And, above all else, our Muslim feminist politics are characterized by a refusal to be haunted by pre-scripted narratives that misrepresent the voices of Muslim women and men and overlook their complex lives, multiple interests, and varied experiences.

It is our belief that a singular focus on addressing the question of whether Islam and feminism can co-exist risks missing how Muslim women from all around the world engage questions of gender equalityfight gender oppressions, and secure women’s rights on a day to day basis. The articles we have chosen for this forum offer a sampling of such radical practices and provide insights into the plurality of our religious beliefs and political commitments. We do not wish to romanticize our relationships to our faith. Rather, we aim to ask deeper, more thoughtful, and more urgent questions about the role of faith in these troubled and troubling times. This is why, instead of asking whether we can reconcile Islam and feminism, we choose to think about how the tenets of Islam, its principles of justice, and gender equity inform Muslim women’s struggles on a day to day basis. We ask how Muslim women, individually and collectively, invoke Islam’s authority in their lives and what their actions as Muslim women reveal about Islam’s gender politics. The answers to these questions  are complex, contradictory, and manifold. We believe that asking questions that center Muslim women’s lives can highlight their rich and multifaceted encounters with patriarchal, gendered, colonial, imperialist, and local state oppressions. These questions may yield more interesting and honest conversations about the status of Muslim feminism, its practice, and its influence. It is our hope that our forum has contributed in some small way to these conversations which are already unfolding all around the world in creative and significant ways.

*Update: We are deeply saddened and horrified by the senseless killings of innocents at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin today. We are equally distressed that Sikh spokespersons have been asked to defend and define their faith on national television during such a time. Our thoughts are with the victims and their families, as well as with our Sikh relatives whose communities have suffered greatly from the ignorance and hatred of their fellow citizens since September 11, 2001.

[1] See, for example: Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (Oxford: One World, 2006). Margot Badran’s Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences. (Oxford: One World, 2009) and Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences (Oxford: One World, 2009). Amina Wadud’s Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1999) and Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (Oxford: One World, 2006).


Dana Olwan is the 2011-2012 Ruth Woodward Junior Chair in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. In Fall 2012, she starts her position as Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Syracuse University. Her research focuses on gendered and sexual violence and the politics of naming honour killings.
Sophia Azeb is an Egyptian-Palestinian anarcha-feminist teacher, writer, and organizer pursuing her PhD in American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She organizes with a number of anti-racist and feminist initiatives, namely the Palestinian American Women’s Association of Southern California. Sophia is also a writer for the popular media blog collective, Africa Is A Country (  You can follow her on twitter @brownisthecolor.