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‘Now we are just talking about gender’: disabled women as killjoys and troublemakers in feminist mov

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

Speech performed at the #Metoo conference in Reykjavík on the 18th of September 2018

Freyja Haraldsdóttir

Sara Ahmed, an independent feminist scholar and writer, has in her literature taught us about the feminist killjoy and the female troublemaker and I want to talk about them today. In short, a feminist killjoy is a pushy feminist, someone who pushes structures, norms, systems and cultures that don’t want to be pushed. It’s also literally killing joy and happiness – the joy and happiness that can reinforce oppression, so to speak. A female troublemaker is someone who causes unhappiness or interrupts peace by only thinking about, or voicing things, that makes them unhappy, but is not supposed to make them unhappy. As a disabled feminist activist, scholar, woman and human being I’m obviously both in a sexist and ableist world. I kill joy and cause trouble – sometimes by just being in a room – being present – existing. But I don’t just kill joy out in public or in spaces that are dominated by men, I also feel, and I’m afraid to say this which may emphasis the fear of being in trouble, that I kill joy in feminist and disability movements/spaces. The #metoo movement is no exception.

When the #metoo movement was emerging I was added to a #metoo group for women in politics in Iceland. For a minute I was happy that someone had thought of me but I’m a former vice-parliamentarian and used to be active in a political party. Soon though, when reading the women’s accounts of violence in politics and the #metoo statement of the group I found my anxiety levels rising. The discussion was only gender-based and little or no attention was given to intersectional discrimination, e.g. on the grounds of disability or race. My experience of oppression and harassment in politics was indeed gendered but it was messed up in ableism and the fact that I live in a body that is neither ‘traditional’ in terms of femininity or disability.  It always is. The more I read, the more isolated and alone I felt.

I wanted to contribute to this amazing movement that was emerging and was supposed to be empowering for me, but my experience just didn’t fit the mainstream feminist criteria. I thought about raising my voice to this and pointing it out, but as so often in the feminist movement, I was afraid. I didn’t want to ruin this revolutionary party. I didn’t want to kill joy. I didn’t want to make trouble. So I didn’t. A few days later a woman posted on the page that she felt the experience of racial, ethnic and nationality discrimination, intersected with gender-based violence and oppression, was not addressed in the group and the statements. I decided to show solidarity through agreeing with her and also addressing the erasure of disability. I was terrified. But I didn’t get many responses. There was silence. Again. One politician replied on my post and pointed out to me that this was a good point, but unfortunately now they were ‘just talking about gender’. For the hundredth time I was asked to erase a part of my identity. My disability. It was just one sentence – but it broke my heart. I unsubscribed to this facebook group, did not sign the statement. I was angry and hurt – but also felt ashamed and guilty – I felt like a bad feminist.

But I was not alone. Through my work in Tabú, a feminist disability movement that I co-founded five years ago, it became evident to me how many disabled women did not feel they belonged or that their experience of violence did not tick the boxes of more normative definitions of violence. The culture of violence is so normalised for many of us that we don’t even recognise it. The different representation of violence makes it difficult for us to explain it or even believe it is ‘violent enough’. Also, sharing our stories publicly is hard. To protect our privacy is complicated in this small population. Many disabled women are dependent upon their perpetrators, e.g. partners, assistants or doctors, so sharing their stories puts them in danger. Also, our bodies and lives are constantly under scrutiny and a property, not only of the public, but also the state, whether we like it or not, so sharing our stories publicly was for some that last thing we felt doing. The #metoo movement most certainly sparked important conversations in the space that we have collectively created for ourselves in Tabú and some disabled women in our movement spoke out and found it liberating and empowering. But we made a conscious decision as a group that staying silent was more powerful for us than speaking out or making a public statement at this time. I was not sure if it was the right thing to do. What is interesting, and a bit funny, is that we also killed joy by staying silent. Since our movement is quite outspoken in general people were waiting for us to speak out. So by not speaking, we made trouble.

Experiencing exclusion and not feeling included in the feminist movement is not isolated to #metoo. I’m not going to dwell on it much further but I do believe it is important to note for the context. Iceland is often presented as a queer and equality paradise. In so many ways our society, mostly women and other marginalised people, have paved the way to the place we are at today and we can in so many ways be proud. And we are privileged. But I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t identify with this paradise. Many disabled people don’t, especially women and non-binary people, people of colour, refugees and asylum seekers. This so-called paradise does not involve us. Our bodies cannot access seats at the table. Our voices are not heard. When we demand to be listened to in the feminist movement we are seen as more privileged women and other feminists were seen before (and still are to some extent); as killjoys and troublemakers. And its so much more painful to be seen as a killjoy or troublemaker in movements that were built up by feminist killjoys and female troublemakers. Movements that should be eager to add some more trouble and killjoy to their grassroots.

But where do we go from here? From where I’m standing, or actually lying down, it’s not our job only, as disabled women, to answer that gestion. We have told you, the mainstream feminist movement, a million times. Reminded you of our existence every time you forget to include us. Advised you over and over again when you fail us. But it’s not working very well. And we cannot wait any longer. Actually, we stopped waiting a long time ago and built our movement. But it’s time for the mainstream feminist movement to hold itself accountable. To do the work. To not take up all the space. Because you need us, even though you don’t realize it, just as much as we need you.

Including disabled women in feminist movements does not only mean including us in your agenda. It means combining our agendas. It means fighting alongside us for deinstitutionalisation and proper social services. It means joining us fighting for reproductive justice which entails, as Angela Davis rightfully pointed out yesterday, not only fighting for access to abortion but also against forced sterilisation. And if I may add freedom to deny abortions and having equal access to fertility treatments, the foster care and adoption systems – and accessible and unstigmatised health care and sex education. It means demanding access to the built environment and to information. It means fighting for a political climate where sexist and ableist hate speech by drunk parliamentarians in a bar is not just defined as disability mockery but gender based ableist violence. It means fighting for disabled women being hired in government positions – not to play along ableist structures and cultures but to crip up spaces and make fundamental change. It means fighting alongside us for sign language interpretation. It means admitting that systemic ableism produces female perpetrators and accepting that disabled women are subjected to violence by disabled men and non disabled family members. All these issues are feminist issues. And the list of them continues.

I cannot speak for all disabled women, but I know many of them will agree with me when I say that feminism is my lifeline. I could not breath without it. But I want to take a minute and my final words here to honour the feminist thought that has been the ground for our work in Tabú, my academic work and my personal empowerment and healing from violence; black feminism. Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Mia Mingus, Lydia X. z. Brown, Sara Ahmed, I owe the world to them. Their work has spoken to us, and many of my disabled sisters and comrades in Tabú and around the world, through the intersectional lenses on feminism. Even though our struggles don’t always look the same our shared experience of difference is a thread that we hold on to. When I’m lost I turn to them. When I’m scared I read their words. When I need to be brave, e.g. when I have to kill joy or make trouble, I think of them. I would not have the courage to speak here today if it wasn’t for them. As a white feminist, I know they didn’t necessarily write for me, I’m a part of the system that holds them down and pushes their feminism to the margins. But that is why it is so obvious to me that we won’t survive without each other.  It is crucial for the future of feminist movements to acknowledge, respect, include and celebrate the relentless work and contribution of disabled women and other marginalized group for gender equality and social justice in the world. It’s the only way to go forward. That work should not be left to marginalized feminist movements alone. To borrow Ahmed work again; ‘Solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.’


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