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OPINION: ‘Gurrrl feminism’: Who owns women’s bodies?

At a discussion held at the New School in New York City this year, titled ' Whose Booty is This?', public intellectual bell hooks posed several key feminist questions: Who owns the female body? Who possesses the female body? Who has rights in the female body? She further argued that it has recently morphed into a question of 'who has access to the female body?'

Reading from Peggy Ornstein's ' Cinderella Ate My Daughter', she quoted: " My fear for my daughter is not that she will someday act in a sexual way. It is that she will learn to act sexually against her own interests". That final statement, the question of what acting 'Against her own interests' means and involves, is key to consider in any consideration of the meaning, value and experience of the female body in society.

The questions raised by hooks are important to consider - even if we do not agree with the position she speaks from. Writers like Pia Glenn, and other feminists, have publically disagreed with hooks on her conservative views - perhaps pointing to some degree of a generational shift. We will not all agree on multiple feminist questions and issues, but the way we make these conversations open to productive disagreement is key.

Last week, however, Helen Zille posted a series of tweets in which she lamented and chastised how what she termed 'gurrl feminism' is dominating feminist conversations here and abroad.

@marangdream The SA and international debate is now dominated by "quotas" and gurrl feminism. Huge diversions from the real issues.

Quoting a post about the San Bernadino shootings, Zille responded that it was "wonderful to see a feminist taking up a real issue affecting women everyday everywhere, rather than 'quotas'".

Wonderful to see a feminist take up a real issue affecting women every day everywhere, rather than "quotas". https://t.co/Mou2npyMM2

When asked what she was referring to, and whether her critique was aimed at black feminists, she stated "gurrl feminism is a brand that flaunts physicality on a woman's own terms. Black or White" and "it is a complex philosophy that in my view misses the core feminist issues".

With very little to go on, it is unclear exactly what is meant by 'gurrl feminism', whether it is linked to the Riot Grrrl movement, or simply aims at minimising and condescending certain feminists. It is not a popular phrase in feminist vocabulary. Many who tried to engage her on this were treated dismissively.

How we engage the issue of women owning their bodies and physicality is important. As hooks and others point out, the question of women's bodies, gender and physicality goes straight to the heart of feminism. It is not a 'huge diversion' from important issues. It is a core feminist issue.

We are and can address multiple feminist issues simultaneously. A concern with 'quotas' - who gets represented in awards shows, at boardrooms, on our televisions, in government, and privileged circles is a core feminist issue. It can only be resisted or excused by those who have the proverbial 'seat at the table' and are used to seeing themselves reflected in society.

Our bodies, as multiple different kinds of women, what they mean and represent in the world, are a core feminist issue, and every single aspect of what affects them falls within the boundaries of feminism. To argue that a 'flaunted physicality' is not feminist, without a complex analysis of issues of ownership, power and agency, is simply to police the boundaries of what is respectable, deny women even the limited agency that we have, and disregard the politics that underscore different performances of female physicality.

Importantly, the idea of what 'core feminist issues' are is being consistently challenged by black and intersectional feminists, who question who is the kind of woman centred and imagined in our feminist practises. Does it include women of colour? Transgender women? Poor women? Women with disabilities? Queer women?

Different kinds of female and non-gender conforming bodies bring different questions of ownership, fetishisation, access, sexuality and objectification into the room. These questions are steeped in historical marginalisation. For example, Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer pointed out in hooks' discussion, it is important to ensure that 'liberatory sexual politics' are 'not at the expense of bodies of colour', and other bodies pushed to the margins of these conversations.

As Kimberly Foster points out, black women "are especially vulnerable to accusations of hypersexualisation because there is no space for black women to have a healthy, public display of our sexualities. Though our objectification is encouraged and incentivized, our attempts to take ownership of those images incur steep social penalties because they defy the expectation that our bodies are public property".

Not all feminisms look the same and not all feminist practices are inclusive. Many of us are learning and unlearning, working on and challenging our feminist practices constantly, as our blindspots are revealed. This process is important for not replicating historical marginalisation, even when unintended. It is occurring as those who have been historically excluded by mainstream feminism are challenging their exclusion in feminist practises that do not recognise that different kinds of women, or non-gender conforming people, face complex, intersecting issues that are often silenced.

However, there is a vast difference between what hooks was pointing to in quoting Ornstein and Zille's chastising women attempting to own their bodies 'on a woman's own terms'. The first perspective considers the world women live in, and the way it is structured to limit or deny women's ownership and agency of their bodies, while the other polices this attempt at ownership, on the basis of an idea of what is respectable and shameful. It shuts conversation down. It polices both women's bodies and dictates their choices - without any complex nod to the patriarchal structure in which these choices are made, or acknowledgment of attempts at subversion and resistance.

Ownership of our bodies and agency are complicated in the context of the world we live in.

In simple terms, we own our bodies. We decide how to dress, accessorise them and adorn them, we decide whether we would like body art, or who gets to share our bodies. We make decisions about sex and sexuality, and how we will ultimately present our bodies to the world. But these decisions don't happen in a vacuum. Once you put these bodies into the context of the world we live in, permeated by pervasive rape culture, and that ownership and agency is complicated.

Those bodies are shamed for how they are dressed, violated, deemed unacceptable and not respectable. No amount of hiding or covering these bodies keeps them safe. Yet still, we continue to constantly address 'effect' and not 'cause', by giving women an endless list of things to do to prevent violence against their bodies and blaming them when it is not enough. We remain trying to prevent the end result, and not the cause: the systemic violence at the heart of a patriarchal system.

While feminists will not always agree on these issues, it is key for the tensions to be productive, that the question is meaningfully engaged. Questions about public and private spaces. Discussions about what kind of self-ownership possible. Interrogations of power and privilege. Challenges to the status quo and its boundaries. Explorations of what kind of subversion and resistance is possible, and the physical and psychological costs involved. Conversations that allow women options and choices. Not simply policing the boundaries of what is respectable, or shutting down valuable dialogue about means to live in different kinds of gendered bodies, and specifically what it means to do this within our South African context. Because whether or not we abbreviate our choices about our bodies and selves, that violence is ever-present.

There is an important conversation to be had about who owns women's bodies; however, respectability policing and shaming does not push the conversation forward, or even engage the important, complex questions that hooks and many others continue to raise.

The questions are ones that I am still grappling with, exploring, prying apart as I listen to other people's experiences and perspectives, and try to knit my own thoughts together. They are challenging, provocative and difficult to unpack. They require trying to understand the way female bodies have been historically understood as spectacle. As sexual objects. As commodities. They demand making sense of attempts to reclaim our bodies. They require considering a vast range of gendered bodies. However, responding to them from a patriarchal worldview or one rooted in shame does not allow any insight or understanding.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler

Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.