FYSK 2013: Mwende Katwiwa

By Guest Blogger

After receiving hundreds of nominations for our Feminist You Should Know contest, the Feminist Campus team was able to sift through them, sit down, knock our heads together, and decide on ten finalists! This was no easy task: every single nominee was the most amazing person we’d ever met so far in our lives. No lie. Our awe-inspiring crew come from a diversity of backgrounds, universities, regions, and perspectives in the feminist movement – and it’s just not possible for us to choose a winner alone. And that’s where you come in! 

Over the next week, we’ll be posting blog posts written by each of our stellar finalists; on Monday, we’ll launch an online voting form where members of our community – that’s you! – cast a vote for who moved you deeply, inspires you most, or simply has your favorite haircut. 

Drumroll, Please: Announcing the Feminist You Should Know Finalists!

This post has been a bit strange for me to write, because although my activism has been feminist in nature for some time, it wasn’t until recently that I embraced the title of “Feminist.” It’s not that I had a particular problem with the term; I just wasn’t brought up to believe that activists needed or strove for titles, so it didn’t cross my mind that there was value in calling myself one.

I wish I could say I became a feminist through some empowering, intellectual experience or event that opened my eyes to the need to fight for women’s rights, but the truth is far from that. Instead, as a black African immigrant, the first and most persistent forms of discrimination I faced were due to my racial and cultural heritage.  I found myself starting my activist journey through spoken word and film early on, in middle school, focusing on issues of racial and cultural inequality. It wasn’t until my later teen years that I was forced to confront gender and womanhood in my activism.

I believe my journey into feminism began the day I hit puberty – not because of hormones or my increasingly changing body, but because of how increasingly vulnerable I felt as a result of these changes. I was a committed tomboy growing up (people often mistook me for a boy), and though I embraced myself as a female, I had also unknowingly embraced the privilege to act powerful and not be questioned about it by virtue of my masculine presentation. After puberty, I was no longer able to hide my female identity so easily and became increasingly confronted with inequality based on my womanhood. My activism began to naturally and noticeably turn to include women’s issues, and it was at this point that others began to label me as a feminist – though I had yet to claim the term for myself.

I didn’t see what I was doing then as “women’s’ activism.” I just saw it as a recognition that I had come of age as a black woman in a patriarchal society with a deeply embedded rape culture that made use of systems based on racial and gender hierarchy and that this did not put me and many others in favorable positions. (Check out my spoken word piece on this in “The ‘I’m Sorry’ Poem,” published in SweetLemon Magazine.) When I started to internalize that the actions I took as a result of this understanding were a form of activism, I still didn’t immediately see the need to distinguish this work from other activism. I had also never been confronted with having to accept or reject a title such as “feminist” in other activist efforts. However, the more passionate I became about women’s rights and the more I learned about the history of the movement in America, the more I realized I would eventually have to confront the term.

Similar to the manner in which the Civil Rights movement marginalized women, the feminist movement in America was historically (and is, at times, contemporarily) riddled with the exclusion of the experiences and needs of black, brown and otherwise marginalized women. Through academic research and personal experiences, I came to the painful realization that feminism, and in effect the term “feminist” itself, was not something that was originally constructed as a space or empowerment tool for women like me. Rather than allowing this to discourage me from the movement, it made me more passionate about ensuring that the ideals of feminism were fought for on behalf of all women. Embracing the term became a form of activism in itself, a demand that if I was to claim the title as I had been encouraged to do, then the movement needed to similarly claim me and my experiences of womanhood as well. This is why I now embrace the term feminist and proudly attach it to the various initiatives that I take part on in campus and around New Orleans.

On campus, I am a Producer for the Tulane University Vagina Monologues because I believe in the transformative power that is found at the intersection of arts and activism. I am also a “Big Sister” mentor through the Newcomb College Institute and through the Office of Multicultural Affairs. In addition, I serve as a mentor in an afterschool girl’s group that I co-facilitate with a friend through the Upward Bound program on campus. This group serves as a support and empowerment initiative for girls from various local high schools and provides them with a space to speak out on various personal and social issues. The group also serves as a resource by providing the young women with information and support in order to properly care for their personal, sexual and emotional health. I also serve as the Social Chair for the Tulane Women’s Rugby Club Team and the Service Chair for the Mortar Board Senior Honors Society, the first all-female honors society.

Off campus, I am a blogher with Winnovating, an organization that profiles and interviews women innovators in various fields in an effort to bring their under-reported stories to light. I am also a guest blogher with Melissa Harris-Perry’s Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South, a group that focuses on supporting programs, courses and research at the intersection of gender, race and politics. I have been known to actively participate in rallies and marches such as Take Back the Night and SlutWalk (check out my interview with SlutWalk co-founder Heather Jarvis on Winnovating), and counter-protests such as one recently held in New Orleans in support of Planned Parenthood. I write and perform spoken word poetry centering on issues of social justice as a form of more personal and art-based activism under the stage name FreeQuency. My work can be found in several publications and I am the 2013 RAWNewOrleans Performing Artist of the Year.

Professionally, I have had the opportunity to integrate my activism into my work through internships at various women’s organizations such as the Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). I have recently finished applying for a Fulbright Fellowship where I hope to return to my home nation of Kenya on an English Teaching Assistantship. If accepted, I hope to establish a community project that empowers girls to find their voices and speak out against gender-based inequality and violence in their areas through spoken word poetry.

I often smile when people question how or why I remain involved in different forms of activism – because for me, they are all really not so different. The way I see it, most of the structures we all fight against are so intricately tied that we cannot afford to confront them in separate spaces or through separate efforts. In the words of Audre Lorde, “I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot afford the luxury to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group.”  I truly believe that once we understand this as activists and human beings, we will be in the best position to make change.


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