Celebrating Cynthia Cockburn
Today, a memorial service is being held for the late, great feminist – Cynthia Cockburn. In her memory, we post the following tribute first given by Pragna Patel at an event in 2014 celebrating her life and work.
Tribute by Pragna Patel
I am truly honoured to be here at this celebration for Cynthia and am really grateful to Nadje for inviting me to say a few words in tribute. I am not exaggerating when I say that I stand in awe of a very special feminist thinker, writer, and above all, activist. Cynthia has never ceased to stun me with her analysis of the nature of power, violence, masculinity, patriarchy and other forms of structural power and their interconnectedness. But more than anything, she is rare amongst feminists in her ability to bridge incisive analysis with consistent feminist activism that truly reflects an intersectional and inclusive approach. She is one of the most self-effacing, caring and compassionate women that I have met. She thinks and acts in a way that I can only envy. I consider her to be up there amongst the very best feminists of our times.
Our activist paths have often crossed and we have collaborated on many occasions but every time, I relish the opportunity, because I never cease to learn from the ways she thinks and relates to events and people. I defy anyone not reflect on their own feminist understanding and activism when in her company. She has helped me enormously in understanding and articulating better the ways in which gender and power link together and how to listen to the voices and stories of those who are silenced.
I first came across Cynthia when I picked up the book: ‘In and Against the State’. The title resonates with us at SBS now more than ever in respect of the current dilemmas faced by SBS, in our struggle to provide front line services for marginalised women in the context of austerity and an unprecedented assault on the welfare state which is taking place alongside a growing culture of control, surveillance and institutional abuse of power. This key contradictory struggle of operating in and against the state is even more relevant now than it was in 1979 when the book came out.
I feel that I have known Cynthia all my life but my first major collaboration with her was towards the end of the 1990s when she brought me together with Marie Mullholland from the Women’s Support Network in Northern Ireland.
In the mid-1980s, I had been part of a left, progressive black delegation to Northern Ireland and met Marie at that time. She made a huge and lasting impression on me. She was a kindred spirit and one of the feistiest feminists that I had come across. Marie was active in challenging multiple discrimination and oppression on the Divis estate, one of the most deprived and, if I am not wrong, securitised council estates in Northern Ireland during the conflict. What I remember most about Marie is that she had one hell of singing voice. I can’t remember how but we both ended up singing songs on stage at a social that had been organised for the black delegation. I tell you, if loud feminist singing could single handedly bring about revolution then we would have surely achieved it that raucous night in Belfast!
So, I was delighted when Cynthia brought us together again. She created a critical space for us to engage in a conversation about feminist practices and alliances that takes account of differences whilst avoiding getting caught up in a regressive political cul-de-sac that is identity politics when it becomes an end in itself. She posed a central challenging question to me and Marie – which is how to move from singular identity politics to creating progressive alliances necessary to bring about transformation. As many of you here will recognise only too well, Cynthia has this uncanny ability to facilitate the most difficult conversations whilst making it seem easy. Cynthia manages to do this because of the different feminist spaces she inhabits and the respect that she commands.
I have to say that I recently re-read the article based on our conversation that was published in the Soundings journal. What also struck me most was how all those years ago Marie advocated the PAFT (Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment) otherwise known as equality proofing guidelines (now understood as the Public Sector Equality Duty) as a tool of empowerment so that women can challenge inequality in decision making in the public sector. I didn’t really grasp the significance of this until much later when in 2008, SBS was forced into a David and Goliath battle with our local Council that wanted to cut our funds in favour of generic service provision. We used the newly created Public Sector Equality Duty successfully forcing the council to undertake a proper equality assessment of cuts to our service. Our subsequent victory gave rise to greater awareness of the Equality duty within the wider women’s sector and our campaign gave confidence not just to black and minority women but also other marginalised groups challenging their councils for making cuts without reference to the need to assess unequal outcomes. I like to think that Marie and Cynthia played their part in our victory.
Women Against Fundamentalism
Cynthia and I next collaborated closely in Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF). To those who don’t know about WAF, it was first established in 1989 in the aftermath of the Rushdie Affair to challenge the rise of religious fundamentalism in all religions and its impact on the reproduction of patriarchal norms in the family and the control of women’s minds and their bodies which are seen as signifiers of the collectivity. Although we were women from disparate anti-racist, religious and non-religious and feminist traditions, we came together on the basis of our commonalities and not identity. We regarded the patriarchal control of women as central to the fundamentalist project, despite the varied formations of religious fundamentalism in different political contexts. And in the British context, our understanding and resistance to all forms of religious fundamentalist movements also involved a focus on the racist nature of the State as well the dominant but dodgy multi-cultural relations between the State and minorities. By analysing our different locations as women within majority and minority communities, we were able to thrash out with some urgency, a common agenda for resistance.
Cynthia came to WAF after it was formed but in her typical fashion chose to slink into the engine room of WAF and oil its wheels by assuming the administrative tasks that are so necessary to keep our struggles alive but which no-one wants to do. I do believe that without her unflinching commitment and hard work, WAF would not have lasted as long as it did.
But what I sense most clearly in recent times is Cynthia’s sense of urgency in actively opposing not just religious fundamentalist power but all religious structures of authority. In recent correspondence she has talked of the need to assert more clearly, a secular, democratic vision of feminism. I agree wholeheartedly because religion has become the counter-hegemonic framework for opposing racism, imperialism and even capitalism, and because States too have turned to religion to deliver services and to avoid accountability for poverty and inequality with devastating consequences for women’s rights and the rights of sexual minorities and other powerless sub-groups. Resistance to these developments brings with it immense dangers in the form of censorship, fear and violence so much so that around the world, progressive feminists, dissenters and atheists are no longer safe. This is why secular spaces matter and why I will always see Cynthia as an important ally in our struggle for secular, democratic spaces as a necessary pre-condition for women’s liberation.
In recent years, Cynthia and SBS have come together in the WIB vigils in London that she organises with others. At these events, she consciously brings together black and minority feminists with others working on male violence in the contexts of peace and war – thee vigils are visible manifestations of her analysis of male violence as a continuum of patriarchal coercion and control.
And this thread has also found its way in other spheres of work that we have embarked on together. In 2013 for instance, she invited me to join her in running a workshop at the Feminist in London conference which is run by up and coming young feminists. She put together the title of the workshop – ‘Moving towards a whole-istic feminism’ in order to, as she put it, ‘challenge linked systems of power.’ She recognised the need to speak to younger women coming to feminism perhaps for the first time. And to extend the range of feminist analysis to concerns that are characteristic of the left, of socialism, and of movements against imperialism, nationalism and racism. I cannot but fail to be impressed and inspired by how someone of her stature prefers to muck in with the rest of us and run a workshop as an equal rather than hold out for a keynote speaking slot. The session was a sell-out, attracting more than 160 women clearly showing that there was a hunger to have conversations that we have grown used to having with each other. Cynthia sensed that hunger and delivered a master class on the nature of intersecting power and the strategies we need to develop for feminist resistance. The session taught me a lot about the importance of engaging with new audiences and in doing so, safeguard our own memories and histories of resistance.
Cynthia is one of the most thoughtful and thought provoking feminists that I have had the pleasure to know and regard as a friend, sister and ally. She is a force for good in this very dangerous world and a never ending source of immense inspiration to me. I am so grateful to know her and to walk beside her.