This article is part of a series on Global Feminisms. Articles in this series explore how feminists have acted beyond the nation. How have global events, ideas and tactics impacted feminism, and vice versa? How have feminists worked across difference – for example, of race, nation, politics – more and less successfully? Read an introduction to the series here.
Amongst historians of feminisms, recent years have seen significant moves to recast historiographical focus away from Euro-America, and to acknowledge the different claims and campaigns around gender justice of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and African activists. Attention to political Blackness and the Black women’s movement, particularly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter, has significantly diversified and enriched historical scholarship and suggested new entry points and historical actors. Categories from this period that have less resonance with today’s political agenda, however, have featured much less prominently. My recent research on Spare Rib [SR] magazine has tried to listen to the variety of ways those sometimes addressed as Black women described themselves; not all found ‘Black’ to be a straightforward politics. The experiences of two refugee editorial collective members – ‘Farzaneh’ and Tsehai Berhane-Selassie – provide an entry point into the complex postcolonial gender politics refracted through Spare Rib.
Spare Rib magazine was one of the most iconic and long-lasting women’s liberation magazines in Britain. Published between 1972 and 1993, it sustained an international readership and attempted to cover women’s activism beyond Britain, particularly in the 1980s when its editorial collective was transformed by the presence of women of colour. This period saw vigorous debate over ideas of Black, post-colonial and ‘Third World’ feminisms. As Margaretta Jolly has noted, there were pervasive tendencies in the British women’s movement to idealise and naturalise ‘Third World’ women, and these were evident in Spare Rib. A white reviewer noted the ‘enchanting’ testimony of women in Miranda Davies’ 1983 collection of writings from the global South, Third World, Second Sex, declaring: ‘By reading this book, one travels from one place to another, one country to another, only to be amazed by the vast differences between women throughout the world.’
However, as the SR collective came to include women who felt belonging and solidarity rather than spectatorship in relation to the ‘Third World,’ a very different kind of coverage became possible. This reflected a language of ‘Third World women’ that was embedded in a historic critique of colonial, economic and political exploitation.
In 1982, SR gained funding from the Greater London Council and hired what the collective described to their funders as Black women workers, aiming to build a stronger anti-racist component into the magazine. Two Iranian women, ‘Farzaneh’ and Manny, known by pseudonyms or first names only for fear of Iranian state-sponsored reprisals, were appointed. Farzaneh’s background was rooted in left-wing politics in Iran, where her family were critics of the American-backed rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi. She had travelled to Britain in the mid 1970s, but returned to participate in the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Farzaneh was on the streets during the women’s marches in March 1979. As she recalled in an oral history interview, ‘all the students, all the nurses, they were massive. And all the comrades, all the male comrades, they were all with us.’ She recalled men making a protective barrier around women marchers, fearing that Islamic factions would attempt to enforce head coverings. Revolutionary guards did attack, and the deteriorating situation eventually meant that Farzaneh fled to Britain, while her relatives suffered detention and torture by the revolutionary government.
Farzaneh’s work with SR was as a graphic designer in the early to mid 1980s, a time of powerful momentum for Black feminist thinking and organising, powered by books such as Amrit Wilson’s Finding a Voice (1978), organisations such as the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (est. 1978) and conferences such as the London-based ‘We Are Here’ (1984). Farzaneh was ambivalent about her place in the collective, concluding, ‘It was lovely time and horrible time I had in Spare Rib.’ She had begun to read feminist books and magazines in Britain, but ‘all more theory than actually reality’. She was powerfully aware that feminism meant different things in different settings. British feminism, summed up for her by lesbianism and the refusal to wear a bra, for example, ‘doesn’t mean anything for Iranian that time […] I was a little bit even worried to be with a lesbian at first because I didn’t know what is a lesbian [laughs].’
Farzaneh felt excluded from the category of ‘woman of colour’ at SR:
When [the collective] were talking about decision making on racism or certain things, they didn’t invite me or Manny, the two Iranians, to the meeting […] We were not dark enough to be black, […] so sometimes we were excluded from decision making on racism. […] You see, we were Third World women, from the Third World country […] We were foreigner.’
Farzaneh’s experiences reveal the difficulties of fitting personal experiences of racialisation into available political categories. As Natalie Thomlinson has documented, activists were open about the difficulties in sustaining ideas of African-Asian unity within the Black women’s movement. It proved even harder to fit women of colour who did not identify as of African or Asian heritage. Farzaneh evoked an alternative lexicon of Third Worldism rooted in national liberation struggles and it became a prominent vehicle for SR contributors in their attempts to evolve a new politics for the magazine in the 1980s.
The SR ‘Black Women’s Issue’ published in October 1983 acknowledged and explored the tensions Farzaneh evoked. Its editorial noted that alongside the tensions between white and Black women, there had also ‘been splits among the Black/Third World women [around] the question of what is Black? How do we define a Black/Third World Woman?’ Manny and Farzaneh were keen to probe these questions further; they published a dialogue with the activist group Southall Black Sisters in SR March 1984 that explored the competing categories of Black, ‘women of colour’ and Farzaneh’s own preferred category, ‘Third World women’. The 1984 dialogue presented a tentative, contested account of how ‘Black’ was used within feminist struggles. Farzaneh brought to the debate a broad sense of socialist and anti-colonial commitments: ‘you couldn’t be feminist without being a socialist, […] you need to change the whole system.’ ‘Third World’ indicated a critical, holistic sense of the geopolitical power structures that shaped trade and world alliances, as well as the qualities of specific places located in the global South.
A different global South or ‘Third Worldist’ perspective emerged in the experiences of Tsehai Berhane-Selassie (1946-). She had joined the SR collective in the autumn of 1984, and her involvement reflects the growing prominence of ideas of ‘Third World’ development. Berhane-Selassie was born into an elite Ethiopian family, critics of the rule of Haile Selassie. She came to the UK to study for a doctorate at Oxford University, after the Marxist-Leninist coup in 1974 led to political persecution in Ethiopia. She was shaped politically by the jailing of her father by the revolutionary government on account of his class status, despite his record of opposition to Haile Selassie. Like Farzaneh, living through a revolution made Berhane-Selassie acutely sensitive to the problems of dogmatic or violent political interpretations and their relevance to specific local struggles.
She thus arrived in Oxford with a strongly developed sense of the complexities of postcolonial struggles. After her studies, Berhane-Selassie moved to London and by chance, answered an advert for a Spare Rib worker. She knew little about the magazine, and only later became aware of the deep discontent of Black collective members. In an oral history interview she noted that the SR collective, ‘accepted me because an incident had just taken place. The Black British, as they called themselves then, and the white British had clashed and they had all walked out.’ Berhane-Selassie recalled her own contribution of a ‘Third World’ perspective to this tense situation:
‘I negotiated with the sisters there and I was very much taken in by sisterhood, it went along somehow with this universal human being was neither white nor black nor male or female which is what I’m coming from. So sisterhood was one thing I used to write about, or was happy to participate in, and development, education. Development for women. Development with women. Development of women in the Third World especially Africa.’
In contrast to Farzaneh’s holistic Marxist sense of ‘Third World’, for Berhane-Selassie, it connoted anti-poverty initiatives and self-empowerment. This was no less critical a politics, with roots in ideas of underdevelopment and dependency theory. Berhane-Selassie repeatedly reported in SR on the inequities that shaped the working lives, health and land rights of women across the global South, as well as the political oppression of South Africa’s apartheid state. She was alert to the neo-colonial qualities of relationships between ‘First’ and ‘Third Worlds’, particularly in relation to the mass fundraising to relieve African famines in the 1980s such as Band Aid, Live Aid and Sport Aid.
Berhane-Selassie’s interest in women and development resonated with a new brand of ‘Third Worldism’. Frustrated with the leadership of non-aligned states, activists had turned to the United Nations to call for a new ‘international economic order’ in 1974, at the same moment in time when the United Nations had become a significant sponsor of women’s economic and social rights with its 1975 Conference on Women in Mexico City. Berhane-Selassie joined the 1985 Third UN Conference on Women in Nairobi as one of 12,000 women attending the Non-Governmental Organisation Forum. Alongside Iranian collective member Manny, she represented SR. They advertised the magazine and took bags of badges proclaiming ‘Don’t Do It Di!’ a critical response to the 1981 Royal Wedding: ‘people grabbed [the badges] like anything. Women – African women sitting in fields discussing issues, they really loved it, enjoyed it, you know, women’s rights, the rights of black women, the rights of lesbian women.’ Her engagement with feminism thus came from influences that were distinctive to the period after 1975 particularly the sponsorship of international gatherings by the United Nations – rather than the consciousness-raising groups and British conferences that influenced SR’s founders.
Berhane-Selassie found herself in a difficult place with regards to colonialism. She was well aware of the coercion and violence of Italian and British interventions in Ethiopian affairs. Nonetheless, she believed that Ethiopia had a special place in anti-colonial struggle as an independent African nation, and had a responsibility to liberate Africa’s colonised people. This sense of distance from colonial experiences may have contributed to her reluctance to explore the questions of racism while at SR: ‘racism was not in my vocabulary or in my experience,’ she concluded retrospectively. Indeed, Berhane-Selassie had been scarred by her brief experiences of living in the United States in the early 1980s, where ‘African-American students took me under their wings and I couldn’t understand why they were so concerned to befriend me.’ The race politics of the United States were distressing for her, and she returned to London: ‘I didn’t want to stay in that kind of mad society where they’re defining human beings as black and white.’
Berhane-Selassie may have also been disconcerted by how her Ethiopian origins could be enrolled in a different kind of global Black radical politics. Ethiopia’s iconic place within Rastafarian religion as well as Africa-centric movements such as ideas of Back-to-Africa drawn from Marcus Garvey, and Black Power meant that, in Berhane-Selassie’s words, ‘Ethiopia is special, okay and […] the monarchy, it has been there forever since the days of Solomon and Queen of Sheba. […] You’re Elect of God.’ Yet she did not identify with the way that Ethiopia had become fetishized within Rastafarian and Afrocentric circles, and this may have contributed to her preference for a race- and gender-neutral humanism.
Revisiting Berhane-Selassie’s striking positive affirmation of having been ‘taken in by sisterhood’, it is worth asking in conclusion, who or what was ‘taken in’ by SR? Negative connotations of being ‘taken in’ as tricked or ensnared speak to the limits of sisterhood, including the exhaustion of racialised women in a predominantly white and sometimes hostile environment as the first Black SR collective member Linda Bellos has described. But in the 1980s, the magazine also provided a hospitable space where a variety of campaigners from the global South crafted campaigns and gained employment and where to be ‘taken in’ could mean to find positive acceptance. Some concepts found a welcoming environment – ‘Third World’ was a powerful intellectual and political framing of the 1980s. It signals ways in which the debates over race in Spare Rib did not correspond to what Tariq Modood has termed ‘black-white tidiness’. The ideological strands of ‘Third World’ and ‘Black’ have been frequently bracketed together but had divergent intellectual origins and activist usage. As key conceptual resources for late twentieth century activists, they reveal complex genealogies of experimentation and contestation. Some ‘Third World’ women felt disorientation in the face of the Black (British) women’s movement.
The growth in political activism organised around ‘Blackness’ in the twenty-first century has eclipsed the alternatives at play in the 1980s, particularly those such as ‘Third World women’ that no longer have active currency. Reinserting them into the narrative of feminist history reveals divergence and dialogue with debates over political Blackness and highlights contributions of women from what today might be termed the global South or the majority world. ‘Third Worldism’ did extensive work in framing postcolonial feminism, displaying breadth and staying power as it evolved from revolutionary to internationalist versions.
This post is based on a longer research article in Mass Media and the History of Feminisms in the Twentieth Century: European and Postcolonial Perspectives, forthcoming in the Studies of the German Historical Institute London series (Oxford University Press).