Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement

Towards Abolition of Gender Roles

The patriarchal control and the relation of terror that engenders slavery, and sets the conditions for modern political reality in the US, is truly exemplified in the social position of the female slave. The remarkably cruel degree of control exercised on black women embodies the violence of the reproductive process that constitutes black life. While patriarchal violence is a phenomenon that is ubiquitous, when coupled with the slave system, the oppression becomes exceptionally totalizing and creates a uniquely onerous web of violence.

Black life was, as it is now, constituted through foundational violence; the slave relation rendered black people as non-people. The issue here is not that people were not given rights, but that a substantial part of the public was not considered human, so the formation of “man,” or “woman,” has a different meaning within this context. Motherhood, for instance, was crucial in reproducing property for slave society. Furthermore, parental rights were non-existent, children were sold and separated from families at will and children were renamed to ensure patriarchal domination by the slaveowner. Afro-pessimist author Saidiya Hartman argues:

The captive female does not possess gender as much as she is possessed by gender that is, by way of a particular investment in and use of the body. What “woman” designates in the context of captivity is not to be explicated in terms of domesticity or protection but in terms of the disavowed violence of slave law, the sanctity of property and the necessity of absolute submission, the pathologizing of the black body, the restriction of black sentience, the multifarious use of property, and the precarious status of the slave within the public sphere. [14]

It is under this reign of terror that the category of “women” as it operates generally in United States was constructed on the basis of the total captivity of black women. Gender roles in the US are situated within this context; the normalization of the white family unit and its categories of woman and man can’t be extricated from the ownership relation. If we desire to create a world where this fixed categorization is abolished, where heteronormativity is dismantled, and people can truly create themselves without the imposition of coercive and prefabricated roles, then we must begin the struggle at the origin of the non-human/human relations, the relations of terror, and the patriarchal relation of property.

The destruction of the gender binary and the liberation from patriarchal control, then, must be based off a politic of action. The foundational violence that established the human/non-human, man/woman, or slave/free dichotomies is constructed through the process of captivity and terror. We must destroy the means of captivity, and political infrastructure that makes the reign of terror possible. By destroying the material means of captivity, we can begin reconfiguring the categorization of captive gender roles. We can begin this process through revolutionary organization and self-defense which is crucial at this juncture.

From Self-Emancipation to Organization

Emancipatory struggles that have the potential to overturn normative relations and open realms of social and political possibilities have customarily materialized from movements and revolutionary organizations that focused on destroying the mechanisms of captivity. Furthermore, the autonomous action of rebel women have often been tied into militant political projects that help expand the potential of feminist politics. There are numerous historical examples that indicate how the war against patriarchy in the United States has always been tied to the struggle against the slave-system and its interconnected network of property relations.

For instance, Harriet Tubman made gallant contributions to the early abolitionist struggle by liberating slaves from captivity, and gained even greater success as her actions became tied into the larger struggle for liberation on a national scale. Her life exemplified the necessity of resistance and self-defense. A working slave since five years old, she suffered greatly and witnessed the destruction of her family.

Harriet Tubman’s journey from bondage is the prototype of revolutionary action. She refused to stay in captivity any longer exclaiming, “[T]here was one of two things I had a right to… liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” Seeing no option except self-defense, she escaped via the informal underground railroad network and then became one of its strongest participants, freeing her own family and seventy others over a decade. Tubman was always armed with a revolver for self-defense during passage. Her work culminated in helping John Brown organize the Harper’s Ferry assault, recruiting runaway slaves for the action, attaining the name “General Tubman,” in the process. Lastly, Tubman was the first woman to head an armed expedition during the Civil War, as she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated 750 slaves.[15]

Tubman’s escape from the plantation was crucial for her self-liberation. This first step, not by patronage, but by action, challenged not just the patriarchal foundations of the slave-system, but also helped escalate the war against the State by strengthening the underground network. When she took that step, she regained control of herself as a woman and as a human being, and in so doing, garnered the confidence to free others. With the remarkable degree of fortitude to overcome the mentality of one victimized by slave relations, she at one and the same time rejected bondage and patriarchy.

The totalizing violence and dehumanization imposed through the slave-system overcome personally by Tubman, and by the liberated slaves in general, marked a break from the human/non-human relation. Once liberated, she did not slip into the constrictive roles offered by “womanhood” in “free” society; her work threw into question gender roles themselves. As she traversed the underground railroad, her confidence inspired others to free themselves; and her actions culminated in her great raid at Combahee Ferry, where she demonstrated the revolutionary understanding that individual freedom necessitates the destruction of the system in its entirety, and the freedom of all.

Approximately a century after Tubman’s courageous actions, Black Liberation Army combatant, Assata Shakur continued the resistance struggle against captivity and slave society. Shakur had been an organizer with the Black Panther Party in New York City in the Harlem branch, and actively participated in the larger black liberation struggle. The State, in a brazen display of arrogance, attempted to pin every bank robbery or violent crime committed by a black woman on Shakur. The intense repression of the black liberation movement during COINTELPRO culminated for Shakur with a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, where her closest friend Zayd Shakur was killed, and she and her comrade Sundiata Acoli were detained.

The cruel treatment Shakur had to endure in the hands of the State is emblematic of the sheer barbarism of US slave-society. Shakur was initially housed in solitary confinement for 21 months and then moved to a maximum-security facility that housed several white supremacists. Later she was transferred to another facility where she was routinely brutalized.

The State’s intentions were obvious from the outset: they intended to punish her for fighting for general liberation and reaffirm its dominance through her subjugation. She personally observed the integral connection between bondage, race, and patriarchy. During her time in prison she concluded, “There are no criminals here at Riker’s Island Correctional Institution for Women, (New York), only victims. Most of the women (over 95%) are black and Puerto Rican. Many were abused children. Most have been abused by men and all have been abused by ‘the system.’” [16]

Her BLA comrades organized her heroic escape from prison and after a period of living underground, helped her escape to Cuba where she still lives today. The US government, in its longstanding commitment to black captivity and white supremacy, has gone to extreme lengths to bring her back, placing a $2 million dollar bounty on her head, put her on the top list of most wanted terrorists, and pressured the Cuban government to extradite her to the US.

Like Harriet Tubman, her path of escape and resistance began to change the narrative of resistance movements, and of political reality. It is through this path of resistance and organization that we see these women recreate themselves and what liberation could look like for others. So when Shakur proclaims, “I am a 20th century escaped slave,” she reconstitutes the struggle for abolition to its original place in US politics, and the original incarceration of womanhood. She herself understood the necessity for total emancipation, saying, “Women can never be free in a country that is not free. We can never be liberated in a country where the institutions that control our lives are oppressive… Or while the amerikan government and amerikan capitalism remain intact.” [16]

The fight for women’s liberation then is acutely tied to the destruction of the patriarchal social relations that were established by the totalizing terror of slavery. The liberation of one woman is dependent on the liberation of all so if even one woman liberates herself from captivity, the potential for the destruction of the US system is that much more likely. This explains the outrageous response to Shakur’s liberation and this is why the State cannot tolerate seeing its captives freed, particularly when they are freed on their own terms. Yet the inverse is much more crucial: that as more women take it upon themselves to actively and militantly participate in their own emancipation, the destruction of the State becomes immanent, and with its demise, the carceral nature of gender roles codified by it begins to unravel. As Assata Shakur encourages us:

Under the guidance of Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hamer and all of our foremothers, let us rebuild a sense of community. Let us rebuild the culture of giving and carry on the tradition of fierce determination to move on closer to freedom. [16]

Feminism in a Revolutionary Society

In other revolutionary periods around the world we find organized forces that coalesced around feminist militancy. In many of these instances, organization took on expansive forms that led to both challenging gender normalization and unlocking revolutionary possibilities.

During the Spanish Civil War, for example, the powerful female militia Mujeres Libres took up the dual call of self-defense and self-emancipation. In their words:

We did not want to substitute a feminist hierarchy for a masculine one. It’s necessary to work, to struggle, together because if we don’t we’ll never have a social revolution. But we needed our own organization to struggle for ourselves. [17]

They combined self-activity with direct action, putting into practice pragmatic steps for liberation, and making revolution a reality. In addition to laying the political groundwork by building numerous organizational projects–from education to infrastructure, they provided support for women in the militias, setting up shooting ranges and target practice classes. The direct link between action, education, and new organizational forms allowed them to facilitate broad new social life, expanding to 30,000 members. By building new organizations, based completely on a new social outlook, they were able to create a more functional, liberatory society.

In Rojava, restructuring gender roles begins with how knowledge is produced. The political goal of their feminist education system is to overcome the hierarchy of knowledge and to change the nature of science and education. “We aim to understand the mechanisms that lay at the basis of the dominance of men’s language and of the exclusion of women from the history of this field by understanding the politics of power and truth regimes.” To counterbalance the truth regimes that reinforce patriarchal power, organizations like Kongreya Star realized what was needed was a study that originates from women’s perspectives. This comes in the form of, what the Kurdish freedom movement calls, Jineology, which is essentially the re-making of social sciences from the female perspective.

This is implemented pragmatically by a parity between women’s and men’s participation in social life. Across all aspects of life, from the Councils to the militia, to civic roles to co-operatives, there is a women’s only component to complement the same of men or mixed gender. To enter any of the armed groups, trainees must first receive education on revolutionary principles, specifically Jineology. Because patriarchy is so deeply rooted, historically, their solution is to not only seek parity for women but to give women a higher footing. So while the armed group the YPG is all genders, the YPJ is female only. While engaged in militia activity men are not allowed to give women orders in any circumstance. A House of Women in each town gives training to men and women on women’s rights, and participates in advanced conflict mediation that pertain to women. The development of collectives is aided by Aboriya Jin, specifically to help women’s co-operatives get off the ground. As a result, women in Rojava have taken control of their lives in new ways, from healthcare to education to mediation, as well as three separate defense forces and an independent economic body.

This systematic practice of centering women, from re-making formative social sciences to creating a culture where women live with a higher degree of self-direction and autonomous self-defense proved indispensable when armed units from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) enslaved women who were on the periphery of Rojava’s social revolution. In August 2014, ISIS attacked Yezidi villages in the Sinjar region of Iraq, driving locals into the mountains. They bulldozed villages, captured thousands of women, forcing them into sex slavery and slaughtered over 5,000, making this one of the most recent acts of genocide in the world. As the survivors taking refuge on Sinjar Mountain were surrounded by ISIS, they were abandoned by state military. It was the feminist forces of the YPG/YPJ who took the initiative to fight ISIS back.

Expanding on the liberatory organization in Rojava, the Yezidis were assisted in establishing their own self-defense forces and organs of self-governance. Sex slaves rescued by feminist militias, have become the fighters of the YJÊ, the Yezidi Women’s Units, turning their dehumanization and victimhood into the pinnacle of resistance. The transformation through self-defense led to the YJÊ and its mixed-gender counterpart to re-take ground from ISIS, including the city of Sinjar less than a year after the genocide, and continuing to liberate their friends and family still in captivity. “For the first time in our history, we take up arms because with the last massacre, we understood that nobody will protect us; we must do it ourselves,” [18] proclaimed a YJÊ fighter. The totalizing violence that almost engulfed Yezidi women in their entirety, condemning them to the slave-relations previously discussed, was destroyed by and transformed into armed women’s self-defense.

Towards Our Struggle

We must integrate a comprehensive project to permanently dislodge, and destroy the apparatuses of control that have made slave-society and patriarchal control possible. Two immediate courses of action to achieve this outcome are to tie pragmatic feminism into the larger abolitionist framework whose main pragmatic purpose is to help those fleeing oppressive situations and state repression, while forming a militant wing to help protect this political project.

With each revolutionary project outlined above we can see how this process could work in our context. In revolutionary Spain and Rojava militants established a liberatory political framework that necessitates having women’s liberation at its core. In each of these processes it was essential for women to organize self-defense teams autonomously. In revolutionary Spain, Mujeres Libre organized over 30,000 women. While the YPJ in Rojava has trained a remarkably expansive fighting force for and by women. Putting self-defense at the core of the revolutionary process has the potential to build strength and uproot stagnant roles. From Harriet Tubman to the YPJ, female fighting forces have always built the strongest revolutionary projects.

The process of undoing gender roles can be viewed as similar to the process of dismantling the carceral state. Putting self-defense at the origin of this process has the potential of both building strength and uprooting stagnant roles. Whether we look at Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad or YJÊ in Sinjar, when people have the opportunity to autonomously defend themselves, and fight for others, the normativity of fixed identities are called into question, and the process of abolishing gender, and creating a fluid world of self-determination becomes possible. This opening necessitates larger political organization. With revolutionary defense tied to the origins of this project we can begin fighting for the diffusion of power, and as power is diffused, new possibilities arise with a proliferation of identities. Within the abolitionist framework, feminism and queer struggle becomes rooted in a historical politic of liberation.

It is clear that neither victimization nor the constrictive gender roles power thrives on, should be tolerated much longer. Anarchists and other revolutionary groups have already began self-defense classes, queer gun clubs, and rapid response networks for trans people. By tying these projects to a broader revolutionary mission, multiplying their efforts by training new complementary units, placing them at the center of social organizations and creating the avenues for mutual support, we can build viable self-defense and the capacity to release others from bondage.

It is through organizing defense and relating these activities to the larger abolitionist framework that we can begin to really grapple with the relation of terror in US society, patriarchal domination, and the expanding slave-system. Those who deeply understand its carceral mechanisms are the ones who will best be able to defeat them.

Next: Ownership Through Use